My wife has been reminding me – on about a bi-weekly basis – that I needed to read Chris Cleave’s novel, Little Bee. My hand was forced when it was selected for my book club. I got to the novel only a few days before our meeting, and I had no trouble finishing it quickly. It is a heart-rending tale of a young girl orphaned by a corrupt government, which places oil production above any of its citizens. Cleave was born in London in 1973. He attended Balliol College. Little Bee is his second of four novels, and yes, those three are on the way. The writing was marvelous – except for a few pages of annoying dialect.
Little Bee lived in a village targeted by the government for clearing open lands for oil drilling. She escaped the slaughter of her family by hiding in the jungle. As the novel opens, Bee has been released from a detention center in the UK after a bribe to a guard willing to look the other way. Bee speaks “the Queen’s English,” so she can maneuver more easily than the three others released with her, all of whom have heavy accents.
Cleave’s prose is magnificent throughout the novel. When the four women separate, Bee heads to an address on a driver’s license she found on the beach. The reader does not know the circumstances of this detail until much later. Bee has formed a relationship with Yevette in the detention center. Cleave writes, “Leaving Yevette, that was the hardest thing I had to do since I left my village. But if you are a refugee, when death comes you do not stay for one minute in the place it has visited. Many things arrive after death – sadness, questions, and policemen – and none of these can be answered when your papers are not in order. // Truly there is no flag for us floating people. We are millions, but we are not a nation. We cannot stay together. Maybe we get together in ones and twos, for a day or a month or even a year, but then the wind changes and carries the hope away. Death came and I left in fear. Now all I have is my shame and the memory of bright colors and the echo of Yevette’s laugh. Sometimes I feel as lonely as the Queen of England” (80).
Little Bee finds her way to the address on the license. She hides for a few days in bushes behind Sarah’s garden. Finally, Bee knocks on the door, and Sarah recognizes her from the beach in Nigeria. She lets her into the house, and tells Bee her husband Andrew has committed suicide, and he would be buried later that day. Bee instantly comforts Sarah’s son, Charlie, and they quickly develop a bond. Charlie does not understand the absence of his father, and he begins acting out in day care. Sarah and Bee come for Charlie, who was angry and hiding in a corner. Cleave writes, “I went into the corner with Charlie. I stood next to him and I turned my face into the corner, too. I did not look at him, I looked at the bricks and I did not say anything. I am good at looking at bricks and not saying anything. In the immigration detention center I did it for two years, and that is my record” (143). Bee always fears someone was coming to take her away. “I was thinking what I would do in that nursery room, if the men came suddenly, It was not an easy room, I am telling you. For example, there was nothing to cut yourself with. All the scissors were made of plastic and their ends were round and soft. If I suddenly needed to kill myself in that room, I did not know how I was going to do it” (143). Be is always looking over her shoulder, always fearing when a stranger makes eye contact.
This story has an open ending, and for that I am fortunate. Had the worst happened, it would have affected me deeply. If you have never encountered an undocumented person, read Little Bee by Chris Cleave and walk a mile in their shoes.