“On the girl’s brown legs there were many small white scars. I ask you right here to please agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.” The wise words of Little Bee, the title character of Chris Cleave’s new novel, lift off the page to directly engage and indict the reader in this story about loss, survival, guilt, and the unseen forces that for better or worse, shape our lives.
Little Bee is told through the voices of two, main characters: the Nigerian refugee, Little Bee and Sarah O’Rourke, the British woman who finds her life inextricably intertwined and utterly dismantled by the young, African girl. Sarah and her husband, Andrew, he a successful London journalist and she the editor of her own ultra-modern magazine, decide to holiday in Nigeria in an effort to repair their strained marriage. What they encounter is a brutalizing and ugly clash of politics and culture, fueled by a corrupt war for oil in a ravaged countryside. Their terrifying ordeal forces them to confront their own personal failings and in the process illuminates the disturbing undercurrents of race, class, and power. Cleave’s narrative begins two years following this ill-fated trip with the arrival of Little Bee on Sarah’s doorstep. Little Bee is a survivor of this encounter, a displaced refugee fueled by her simple will to live, and a gentle and generous spirit who becomes a kind of living scar that ultimately helps Sarah heal and find new purpose in her life.
Cleave writes compelling prose in a style that is accessible and engaging, crafted to bring the reader in deep and close proximity with his subjects, geographies, and ideas. By using a shared narrator style, Cleave captures the perspectives of both women, allowing them to breathe evenly on the page. Both Little Bee and Sarah share moral shortcomings, become witnesses to injustice and evil, and bear responsibility for their life-altering choices. By giving each woman narrative room to flesh out their perspectives, Cleave submerges the reader in both of their worlds to cleverly merge the two ultimately raising questions about difference and social responsibility.
There are places in the book where the prose repeats itself in the overuse of a word, and the direct address device that begins the novel and gives it its sense of urgency and gravity, ultimately drops out of the text. It is unclear if this is a deliberate attempt to loosen the reader slightly from the book’s grip and from Little Bee’s relentless drive to direct the reader’s attention at her plight or if it is a novelistic oversight. Regardless, Cleave ultimately delivers a powerful narrative that resonates beyond its pages, making the reader wonder how so much pain, joy, love, and terror can find its way carried on the wings of such a little bee.