Recently I read a novel called Little Bee, (published as The Other Hand in the UK) written by British author Chris Cleave. In essence, it is a story about a personal connection forged between a British woman and a teenage Nigerian refugee.
A quick plot review: Sarah and her husband, Andrew went on holiday to a Nigerian beach the summer the country was in an oil war. They are having marital problems and are trying to work out how to stay together due to Sarah’s infidelity and Andrew’s lack of attention. While they are walking, they see Little Bee and her sister Nkiruka; the girls ask them for shelter, and the O’Rourkes turn them away. A few minutes later, some soldiers come. Things get heated and eventually the soldiers make the O’Rourkes a horrible deal to save Little Bee’s and Nkiruka’s lives. That decision leads Andrew to later commit suicide.
Fast forward through some heavy material…
Little Bee comes to the UK as a refugee. Not knowing where else to go, she seeks out Sarah, and the two have a lot of healing, understanding, and growing to do.
This novel was an absolutely delicious read. I loved the concept of the story, that it didn’t have such a direct “plot” for lack of a better word. Basically, an end goal for either character. But it still moved, dripping with details. It was the kind of story that immerses one into itself so well that when it’s over, it’s necessary to take a few hours to kind of get over it. Only certain books can make me feel that way after reading. Yes, it has upsetting material, but the reason for reflection was because of hope I thought, rather than sadness.
Cleave uses Little Bee and Sarah as two narrators. I’m coming around to the idea of liking multiple voices, and in this instance was probably necessary to tell the story. It also was helpful to work out characterisation and character biases. There were times when I wanted to hate Sarah, or Andrew, or Lawrence (Sarah’s lover). And I viewed Little Bee as someone who deserved every pardon because she had been through so much. But then on, reading, I came to give Sarah a lot of grace (and Andrew, and Lawrence). Because honestly, in her narrative she doesn’t explain away or rationalise her behaviour. She admits it honestly, and she is very selfless in other ways. And Little Bee is not perfect, but she is still in my opinion a very good person.
To wrap this up, I’ve chosen a few juicy examples of Chris Cleave’s writing. (To my friends I described it as eating chocolate).
“So, I am a refugee, and I get very lonely. Is it my fault if I do not look like and English girl and I do not talk like a Nigerian? Well, who says an English girl must have skin as pale as the clouds that float cross her summer? Who says a Nigerian girl must speak in fallen English, as if English has collided with Ibo, high in the upper atmosphere, and rained down into her mouth in a shower that half-drowns her and leaves her choking up sweet tales about the bright African colours and the taste of fried plantain? Not like a storyteller, but like a victim rescued from the flood, coughing up the colonial water from her lungs?” 8
“If the men come suddenly, I will be ready to kill myself. Do you feel sorry for me, for thinking always in this way? If the men come suddenly and they find you not ready, then it will be me who is feeling sorry for you.” 47
“It was a bright morning, I told you that already. It was the month of May and there was warm sunshine dripping through the holes between the clouds, like the sky was a broken blue bowl and a child was trying to keep honey in it.” 52
“Truly, there is no flag for us floating people.” 80
“We don’t have a grown-up language for grief… If I couldn’t show the world grief, at least I would show the world what it did to your eyes.” 87-91
“I am telling you, trouble is like the ocean. It covers two-thirds of the world.” 138
“I was very young then, and I did not miss having a future because I did not know I was entitled to one.” 182
“The dreams of my country are no different than yours– they are as big as the human heart.” 258
“‘Peace is a time when people can tell each other their real names.'” 265