Reviewed by Judy Garrison
The voice of the Nigerian girl, known as Little Bee, is a winning and intimate one. A driving desire to survive and fit in has led her to teach herself to speak the Queen’s English during her two years in the immigration detention center in London. (“To survive you must look good or talk good.”) Her clear and articulate English—in contrast to the outlandish and funny expressions of her Jamaican friend Yevette—brings her close to us. At the same time this 16 year-old village girl battered by tragedy is able to charmingly convey to us the strangeness she encounters at every turn in England. And when each new situation compels her to imagine how she might preemptively kill herself to prevent “the men” from getting her and hurting her, we understand the depths of her acquired fears.
Sarah O’Rourke, the other narrator, editor-in-chief of a posh English fashion magazine, while not as immediately endearing, also pulls us in with her confidential and riveting voice. It was a good move to allow both of them to speak to us. When these two women, whose lives collided on a beach in Nigeria two years before the action starts, become linked together again, we are galvanized by their connection.
The story is peopled with realistically drawn characters: Sarah’s husband Andrew—whose split-second responses to the threats on the beach subsequently tear him apart emotionally; her lover, Lawrence, whose self-deprecating and witty conversation and devotion to Sarah endears him to us (despite the fact that he is cheating on his wife) until we fear he may take action leading to the deportation of Little Bee; Sarah’s son, 4-year old Charlie, modeled on one of the author’s children, never without his Batman suit and quirky persona, his obsession with the “baddies.”
The author draws us in to the personal stories of Little Bee and her sister: they fled their village to avoid being slaughtered like all the rest for having witnessed the burning of their village, Now they are chased through the jungle by oil company men with machetes. On another level, Cleave is telling the story of the aftermath of colonization, how the repercussions of the imperialist plunder of natural resources at the expense of native people and their way of life has led to a three-way oil war and unimaginable cruelty and violence.
Looking at the author’s name – Chris Cleave – led me to free-associate it with the dual meaning of “cleave”: to split and separate, and to adhere, cling and stick fast; and to posit “cleaving” as a central theme of the book. Little Bee, while continually musing over how she would explain things to the “girls back home,” finds herself identifying with Queen Elizabeth II in their shared loneliness. Her identity is shifting. Sarah has drifted emotionally from her husband, and experiences a moral rift as well (“When I looked at him I hardly saw a man anymore”). Then, after his death, she starts to grasp his anguish and his attempt to make restitution, and she pledges herself to complete his unfinished project. Her role as magazine editor, which once defined her, suddenly seems meaningless to her, and she quits. Lawrence, whom she had previously clung to, is now less important to her than her son and Little Bee, expendable even. Sarah and Andrew had thought of Nigeria mainly in terms of a venue for a free beach vacation. The stinging consequences of their encounters outside the compound sink in on their return to England, and they each experience a kind of moral awakening: what matters now, to Sarah especially, is a sense of responsibility to Little Bee, and to all Nigerian victims of violence and displacement. What was “other” has become to each of the main characters a necessary and personal mission.
I would recommend this moving, disturbing and entertaining book to a wide circle of readers. Seattle’s One City/One Book program has chosen it as their 2011 selection, and it has been high on the New York Times best seller list, rising to # 1 for three weeks, so I am in good company. ~