By Tara Kusumoto
The inside jacket reads “We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it… The magic is in how the story unfolds.”
What might have been an empty marketing ploy turns out to be genuine. Little Bee is a novel to cherish; Little Bee is a character you will not forget.
Chris Cleave, a journalist for The Guardian, tells the story of two characters: Little Bee, a Nigerian refugee who has been locked up in a British detention center, and Sarah, an editor for a women’s magazine. The mystery – and beauty of this fictional tale – is in how and why they meet.
At the intersection of ethnic violence in the Niger delta and London city life, Cleave exposes some of the toughest issues, from globalization, political greed and oil wars, to the equally painful, but more personal realities of damaged relationships and family. His sharp writing and commitment to the characters voices provide a steady foundation on which the turbulent story develops.
The most poignant moments emerge when Little Bee contrasts her current experience with life in Nigeria. She asks “What is an adventure?” and answers her own question:
“That depends on where you are starting from. Little girls in your country, they hide in the gap between the washing machine and the refrigerator and they make believe they are in the jungle, with green snakes and monkeys all around them. Me and my sister, we used to hide in a gap in the jungle, with green snakes and monkeys all around us, and make believe that we had a washing machine and a refrigerator. You live in a world of machines and you dream of things with beating hearts. We dream of machines because we see where beating hearts have left us.”
Little Bee’s innocent view of London is backfilled by her memories of Nigeria. She doesn’t understand horror films because for her, horror is a “film in her memory” that is always playing, and that she “cannot walk out of.” In her new environment, she wonders how to describe things to the “girls back home” – wood floors inside a house instead of piles of firewood, or the “ghosts” who don’t look at each other or touch each other as they hustle to work.
Cleave forces the reader to encounter everyday life with a new outlook and question which is more powerful: cultural difference or individual likeness. In Little Bee, worlds and perspectives merge to expose beauty beneath unattractive political and personal veneers.
Read more from Tara on her personal blog: Mingling with Words.