I really don’t want to reveal too much here, because what makes Little Bee so good is how the story unfolds. Chris Cleave does an amazing job telling the story using two narrators: Sarah and Little Bee–the two main characters. What I will say is that these two women experienced something horrific that changed the course of both of their lives while also tying their lives together in an inextricable way.
Little Bee is a Nigerian orphan who is used to poverty, abuse and death. But she is strong; she knows how to rise above. The way Cleave conveys her character is genius! She has learned the Queens English during her two years in a British immigration detention center, through newspapers and magazines. So she has also come to terms with much of the culture. But there are times when the culture surprises her (of course!), and she “deals” by telling the reader how she would explain to “the girls back home” after she has come to understand the situation (after she has become the “expert”). For instance, when she sees one of the officers at the detention center looking at a magazine with topless women. In explaining things to “the girls back home” in this way, Cleave injects these situations with some levity, allowing the narrator to be comic rather than tragic.
Cleave’s use of an alien narrator also puts things in sharp focus, especially when that narrator has a difficult time understanding things that this “other” culture takes for granted. For instance, that they are so able to enjoy their freedom while imprisoning and deporting those who ask to share in it.
The book’s cover and marketing makes it out to be a lighter and much funnier read than it actually is. It is actually a heavy, somewhat sad book. But it’s also shot through with remarkable joy and hope. Cleave is a gifted writer with such a grasp of language and prose. And he does an incredible job writing the thoughts of an English Language Learner. I would just sit and marvel at some of the things I had just read (and often reread them)!
One specific section that I read at least 3 times captured so well what is true about the English language–that words often have multiple meanings:
“This was always my trouble when I was learning to speak your language. Every word can defend itself. Just when you go to grab it, it can split into two separate meanings so the understanding closes on empty air. I admire you people. You are like sorcerers and you have made your language as safe as your money.”
This was in response to being called “scum” and after looking it up in her Collins Gem Pocket English Dictionary, Little Bee found the following definition: a film of impurities or vegetation that can form on the surface of a liquid. She said she didn’t know what to do with that information.
The above quote is written with such imagery and understanding. I even question: would someone who speaks English as a second language (whose native language is Ibo), and has only been speaking English for 2 or so years, be able to express this thought so eloquently? Nonetheless, it does illustrate Cleave’s excellent writing.
What a fantastic book! If you haven’t already read it, I suggest you run (o.k. you can drive) to your nearest bookstore–or even just download it to your e-reader–and read it NOW! I promise, you will not regret it. It’s one of the most moving and engaging books I’ve read in a long time.