Little Bee is the story of a Nigerian refugee, an English woman, and a superhero. The refugee is Little Bee herself, a 16 year old Nigerian girl who fled her country to escape retribution for being witness to the destruction of her village. It seems her village had the bad luck to be located on top of a large reserve of oil, and the government and the oil companies wanted to get at it without having to worry about little things like relocating people or paying them fair value for their land. On the day "the men came", Little Bee and her sister watched as their family and friends were killed and their houses burned to the ground. They escaped through the woods, only to be caught hours later on the beach. Improbably, Sarah, the Englishwoman, and her husband were walking down that beach, on a vacation. When the men caught up with the girls, Sarah and her husband tried to protect them, with tragic consequences. Two years later, Little Bee contacts Sarah. She's in England, having stowed away on a boat and spent the time since they last met in a detention center. Little Bee's call starts another sequence of tragic events in motion for Sarah, her husband, and her son, Batman.
I don't usually read reviews of a book while I am reading it, but I did look into this one a bit. Mostly because the back cover has such an unusually cutesy "summary" for a rather tragic story. It reminded me of the Series of Unfortunate Events narrator, who was constantly telling you to stop reading, only in reverse. Anyway, the reviews were pretty evenly mixed between good and bad, and I guess that's how I felt about the novel in general-good and bad all mixed up together.
So, what's bad? I understand suspension of disbelief when reading fiction, but the idea of two middle-class English people choosing to take a vacation to Nigeria seemed too implausible to me. Maybe I don't know enough about the tourist industry in Europe, but Nigeria, with it's oil wars, seems like a strange place to go. Without that visit to the beach, none of the rest of the novel would have been possible the way it was written. However, I'm not sure why we needed to see the story of an African refugee through the eyes of a middle-class English woman at all. Cleave seemed to be trying to equate the experience of Sarah with the experiences of Little Bee, and frankly that is just ridiculous. It felt very much like white-liberal-guilt-redemption fantasy to me. Sadly, in our world, it does often happen that the only way we pay attention to the plight of those in the developing world is by how it affects our own experiences.
What's good? Little Bee as narrator makes the rest of the slightly unbelievable story worth it. Her voice as written by Cleave is lyrical and innocent, yet worldly and wise. My favorite thing in the book is the first line: "Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of and African girl." Little Bee's point of view makes everything that Sarah and her family go to look small. While his portrayal of her could also smack of "noble savage" stereotype, she is shown with a depth of human emotion and a capacity for good and for bad that makes her completely relate-able. What is also good is the fact that regardless of how he goes about it, Cleave does a good job highlighting some of the problems of refugees. Most rational people would consider Little Bee a political refugee, but because England did not recognize the oil wars in her country "officially", she was left in a gray area legally. I was shocked to discover after reading a bit that she was only 14 when she came to England, but she was thrown into detention with adults and given no schooling. Our oil addiction in the developed world helped create the situation in the first place, but we avert our eyes to the consequences, and then call the displaced human beings refugees or illegal aliens, and deport them back where they came from.
Final verdict-an entertaining, imperfect, enlightening, enjoyable read. I mean really, aren't we all a little good and a little bad thrown in together?