Ten pages into Little Bee
, I decided there's no reason to write again-not even an e-mail. There's no reason to read again, either. Chris Cleave has done something truly stunning with language in this book, but it's not just the language. The story is fascinating and utterly believable despite its vast coincidences. Even the book jacket is arresting. I'm not sure why Simon and Schuster refused to summarize the plot on the jacket flaps. Yes, it's a truly special book, but I found the mystery off-putting. Never mind. If you don't want to hear about the plot, stop reading this review right now. Get the book.
Critics loved Cleave's previous book, Incendiary
. He also has a website
, where he posts the columns he writes for The Guardian
. They're funny, full of gentle, sarcastic humor about his family life - well written and fun to read, but not stunning. However, halfway through Little Bee
, I was stunned.
Little Bee is a Nigerian girl who has learned to talk like the Queen. She's a refuge who has been detained in an immigration detention center forty miles east of London for two years. I've never heard a Nigerian woman speaking the Queen's English, so I can't vouch for the accuracy of the dialogue. But I believed in Little Bee from the first paragraph, and I loved her by page eighteen, where Cleave writes:
"I looked back at the detention officer, but he would not look up at me. While I looked, he moved his arm over the page to cover the headline. He made it look like he needed to scratch his elbow. Or maybe he really did need to scratch his elbow. I realized I knew nothing about men apart from the fear. A uniform that is too big for you, a desk that is too small for you, an eight-hour shift that is too long for you, and suddenly here comes a girl with three kilos of documents and no motivation, another one with jelly-green eyes and a yellow sari who is so beautiful you cannot look at her for too long in case your eyeballs go ploof, a third girl from Nigeria who is named after a honeybee, and a noisy woman from Jamaica who laughs like the pirate Bluebeard. Perhaps this is exactly the type of circumstance that makes a man's elbow itch."
Little Bee's life is entangled, by accident, with the life of another woman, Sarah, a white British magazine editor who lives in Kingston-upon-Thames. Sarah has just had something terrible happen to her, and she can't figure out how to feel. Sarah and Little Bee knew each other briefly in other terrible circumstances. Sarah was on vacation. Little Bee was in the middle of her real life. Now she's in the middle of Sarah's real life. Sarah has a young son who always wears a Batman costume, so he's always ready to fight baddies. There are a husband and a lover in the mix. Little Bee is in Britain illegally. Sarah's life has lost its meaning. Cleave works his magic throughout: the two women learn how to help each other. Their relationship feels perfectly natural.
Is there anything wrong with this book, I wondered? Not much. It can occasionally be too poignant. The characters aren't always likeable. However, to sum it up in one sentence, you might say this: All sorts of horrible, depressing, unjust things happen in Little Bee, but it's the most hopeful book I've ever read.