For a book with a very sweet title, Little Bee really knocks all expectations or preconceived notions, out of the park. My friend, Ms B, had lent the book to me, based on a couple of recommendations I had given her. She had told me little, aside from that it was a really good story and, given that she had loved The Storied Life of AJ Fikry and Where the Crawdads Sing, I had been willing to believe that we were on the same page. What I hadn’t anticipated was that Little Bee by Chris Cleave would just blow me away.
When I was much younger, I attended a school where some of the pupils boarded. One of my closest friends at that time was a Nigerian girl, who would tell stories about her home country. In retrospect, I suspect that both she and I were really too young to understand what her stories meant but, her father was a politician and, depending on the political climate at any given moment, he would find himself imprisoned. Although many years have since elapsed, my opinion of Nigeria as dangerous, was in part formed by my friendship with Nyema. As I read Cleave’s novel, I couldn’t help but think of her stories, of what it must really have been like to live there and I found myself wondering what had become of her and her family. This time, Google was not my friend and I found, some 35 years later, that Nyema was untraceable.
Little Bee tells the story of its eponymous heroine and the troubles she has faced. An illegal immigrant from Nigeria, driven from her home country by a brutal feud over oil, resulting in the murder of her family and destruction of her village, Little Bee has nowhere left to run. She makes her way to the UK on a boat and, upon arrival, is held in a detention center for two years. Once released, she walks to the home of the only British family she knows and it is there that the dots are joined, and the whole story becomes clear.
Ms B was right in her description, Little Bee is a really good story, but it’s also a challenging one. What she hadn’t mentioned was just how heartbreaking this tale is, from beginning to end. Reading it is like riding an emotional rollercoaster of sadness, cruelty and hope and finding only more exhaustion and upset at the finish. That said, I haven’t read many novels that are this thought provoking, or any that tackle immigration in such a head on manner. It’s a damning book and it’s right to be. The unthinking British attitude to immigration, whereby it’s always someone else’s problem, is brilliantly illustrated in this book. When you finally turn the last page, you know you have read something about society in general and how frighteningly capable we are of mistreating our fellow humans. It’s a lesson we should all be painfully aware of in the current climate, but sadly we need to be taught over and over again.
This is a fantastic book but a hard one. Please, please, please be sure to brace yourself.