Little Bee

Author Chris Cleave

This is the real reason why no one tells us Africans anything. It is not because anyone wants to keep my continent in ignorance. It is because nobody has the time to sit down and explain the first world from first principles. Or maybe you would like to, but you can’t. Your culture has become sophisticated, like a computer, or a drug that you take for a headache. You can use it, but you cannot explain how it works. Certainly not to girls who stack up their firewood against the side of the house.

I don’t remember how this book came to my attention or why I have been so intent on wanting to read it for several years now. I can explain that I’ve had it on my night stand for the better part of this year and I’ve picked it up to read and put it back down at least once each week. It was the sort of experience that you know is going to stay with you for a long time, but why exactly you feel this is difficult to put into words.

Little Bee is from Nigeria, Sarah and Andrew are from England. Their paths cross for a brief moment on a small beach and everyone’s live change. The blurb on the back of the book jacket explicitly says that no more should be said about the plot, so that the joy in reading this story is not spoiled. I think a few more bits of information can be shared without detracting from Little Bee’s story.

In our village our only Bible had all of its pages missing after the forty-sixth verse of the twenty-seventh chapter of Matthew, so that the end of our religion, as fas as any of us knew, was ‘My God, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?’ We understood that this was the end of the story.

Readers will meet Batman. Young, impressionable and resolute in his decision making. Lawerence who didn’t make a good impression on me but others within the pages seemed to like him okay. Yvette, who will make you laugh and cry, perhaps at the same time. Nkiruka who I would like to be friends with and provide comfort to. Andrew, who surprised me each time he appeared and who was perhaps on as harrowing a journey as Little Bee.

Earlier this year I read Pigeon English, another book that I had been looking forward to reading for a long time but was greatly disappointed in. Perhaps this is why I took so long to read Little Bee. The two books are similar in one important regard, a white man is writing about a Black person’s experiences in England as a migrant. As I pointed out in my Pigeon English review, I thought Stephen Kelman did a poor job of it. I was wary when I started reading Little Bee, wary of an author writing from a perspective or about experiences that is not their own, more so when the gender and ethnicity they are writing from are not their own. A white man writing from the perspective of a Nigerian woman didn’t seem like a book that I wanted to get behind.

I read the book in one sitting. The tone and voices of Little Bee and Sarah were enough to pull me through the story, the content made it impossible to put down. I enjoyed Little Bee’s wit and strength, she wasn’t perfect but she was willing and capable of seeing the flaws in herself and those around her. The exchanges between her and Lawerence, their negotiation and baring of facts was brutal was incredibly well written. In a book that is 90% powerful moments, their cup of tea and words exchanged packed a punch. I was surprised and glad that this book, the characters and the characterisations were multi-dimensional. There were no heroes and villains (excepting Batman), just people striving to survive; some more selfless than others but all with motivations that rang true.

I won’t say it was a perfect novel, then there would have been sunsets and happily ever afters which are suited to bedtime stories for children. Little Bee was like opening an unassuming present wrapped in layers of paper. Each layer filled me with trepidation and anxiety for the well being of characters caught in a quagmire. There is hope and laughter to be found; be warned, the reader’s journey is just as bumpy as Little Bee’s was.

Four stars*