Many books can get quite heavy-handed when it comes to immigration and issues in third-world countries, preferring to preach about injustice and inequality at every turn, when the subtle approach can work much better. I honestly had no idea what to expect from a book that was told from the dual perspectives of a member of one of those third-world countries and of a working mother from England who has an intimate connection with the girl based on horrible events that happened prior to the novel.
What Chris Cleave does right in Little Bee is to let the narrative speak for itself. It flows smoothly between the two protagonists, weaving a tale that is impossible to deny, and yet fantastic in its complexity at the same time. Little Bee has been in a detention center on the outskirts of London for two years after stowing away in a boat that originated in Nigeria. She has a horrible tale to tell, but she tells it in her own time over a series of chapters, a tale that includes the white woman she is trying to locate in the London suburbs, the woman who tells the other half of that tale.
The women are linked, it’s true, by events that reshaped both of their lives, but they have no clue how to deal with the aftermath of those events even two years later. What’s intriguing about the narrative is its dogged determination to tell the story in its entirety, the actions and reactions that grievously wounded both women, physically and emotionally. And the decisions they make as a result of these wounds are serious ones with serious consequences.
What I love most about Little Bee is the subtle nuance that could be missed if you blinked. It happens on both sides, too, maintaining the balance that is struck at the very beginning of the novel all the way through. Little Bee is a sympathetic character to a fault, while Sarah (the white woman inextricably linked to her) is ultimately not. But as a reader I find myself attracted to the spirit of both at times, a dynamic testament to the author and to his portrayal of both as three-dimensional characters living in a two-dimensional black-and-white world.
But it’s not even black-and-white. It’s masquerading as clearcut when the choices and the decisions are anything, and the world the characters inhabit is anything but. That’s what’s so fascinating about the tale itself, and about the way it is told. I give Cleave all kinds of respect for having the ability to tell this story the way it was supposed to be told. Believe me, at the end you too will be invested in both women, in the history that both binds and separates them, and in what must happen next.
I give this novel FIVE stars.