Review of NY Times bestseller by author Chris Cleave
As humans beings we are blessed with the gift and curse of empathy. This has allowed us to uniquely (at least as planet Earth is concerned) see beyond survival, to establish codes of ethics, morals and standards of behavior for the society at large. It is our compassion that has enabled humans to work together and harness intellectual capacity. As civilization has matured these traits have become engrained in our brains and collective psyche to the extent that they are expectations that we take for granted.
And yet the most horrific violations of these codes occur every day. Murder, hate, torture, rape, genocide and war are ever present. We have the legal system to keep it all from coming unglued but society manages to continue to function because we have erected protective barriers to our conscience by conveniently categorizing these violations as aberrations and/or learned how to tune them out completely. These barriers are really quite thin and fragile though and occasionally, sometimes when we least expect it, a hole wears through exposing the darkness on the other side.
This is the starting point for the journey that is Little Bee, NY Times best-selling novel by British author Chris Cleave. Little Bee spends her young life on the run. Initially she and her older sister Nkiruka are on the run from the Nigerian soldiers who are seeking and killing those who witnessed the genocide of her fellow villagers (including her parents) in the name of the oil company that has claimed the riches beneath their soil. Later she is on the run from British authorities who turn a blind eye and want to deport her back to the authorities in Nigeria from whom she managed a daring escape.
Sarah and her husband are both comfortable middle class Brits who impulsively decided to get away from their careers in journalism and their four year old son for a short holiday – an inexpensive beach vacation in Nigeria. Here their world unexpectedly collides with Little Bee and the impact was enough to crack the protective shell. They are swept into Little Bee’s world of conflict and as it turns out there’s no escape. Their empathy for Little Bee’s and her sister’s plight is instantaneous and inextricable. Even long after their return home they are unable to repair the cracked protective layer – their disparate worlds are forever linked.
Little Bee is a compelling and intricately crafted story that lies just beyond the world of the likely but well within the bounds of the credible. Its characters are sympathetic but depicted with enough detail to illuminate their limitations and flaws. And while drawn to the story itself and the portrayal of its characters I found the real beauty in Cleave’s novel to be in the telling. We see the world alternately through the eyes of Little Bee and Sarah. Sometimes the same events are retold from each of their perspectives enabling the reader to mediate and find their own reality somewhere in between. But without question, Little Bee is a creative, literary work. Little Bee’s innocence provides a voice for Cleave as evidenced by the opening passage:
“Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming. Maybe I would visit with you for the weekend and then suddenly, because I am fickle like that, I would visit with the man from the corner shop instead – but you would not be sad because you would be eating a cinnamon bun, or drinking a Coca-Cola from the can, and you would never think of me again. We would be like lovers who meet on holiday and forgot each other’s names.”
While illuminating some very dark themes, Cleave manages to provide levity, balance, and hope for the future. Sarah’s four year old son Charlie is convinced that he is Batman, sees his role in the world as containing evil (the “baddies” as he puts it) and wears his Batman costume 24/7. While Little Bee has prematurely but certainly crossed the barrier beyond innocence warning “Do Not Back Up – Serious Tire Damage Will Occur,” Charlie still represents the innocence of youth. When Charlie gets lost on an outing to London, nothing else but his safe return matters – even the risk of Little Bee’s capture by the authorities. Ultimately as the story concludes it is Charlie’s future that we look towards and his youthful innocent world where hatred has not yet been taught leaves us with hope.