Little Bee tells the story of two women whose lives are accidentally intertwined. The first is a small 16-year-old African refugee who finally escapes two years in the UK’s Immigration Detention Center at the beginning of the book. The second is a British wife and young mother who began a successful women’s magazine before her new family undergoes an overwhelming tragedy (no spoilers here!).
“We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret”
The chapters bounce back and forth between each protagonist, Little Bee and Sarah, with each taking turns narrating their own side of the story. At first its confusing – why are we following these two separate characters? – but Cleave is sure to show the link between the two even from the first chapter. One of Little Bee’s few possessions is a business card belonging to Sarah’s husband, and she uses the printed number to call him as soon as she’s given the chance to use a phone. It takes half the book to discover exactly what terrible tragedy these women experienced together two years prior, but its the deep scarring kind that forges an unbreakable bond between them.
Little Bee came from a small village in Nigeria, escaping when it was overrun by violent men thirsty for oil and money. Her experiences give her a strange combination of innocence and maturity – she understands death more than most but remains fearful of her own sexuality because she’s only witnessed that taken advantage of. She seems younger than 16 because she only just learned English, taking the Queen’s language as her only defense in the dank cells that hold the fugitive immigrants just looking for a better life.
But Little Bee somehow still sees the glass half full – a miracle just on its own. She paints her toes bright red every night in captivity, hiding them under her steel-toed boots so that she can still feel pretty under all that protection. She’s released from the Detention Center with a few other girls, and each are given a clear plastic bag to hold all their worldly belongings. When Little Bee sees a beautiful girl in a yellow sari with nothing in her bag,
“At first I thought it was empty but then I thought, Why do you carry that bag, girl, if there is nothing in it? I could see her sari through it, so I decided she was holding a bag full of lemon yellow. That is everything she owned when they let us girls out.”
She has such a simple outlook on life, whereas Sarah’s couldn’t get any more complicated, and when the two women finally do meet in the book, Sarah does everything she can to help the little girl. She recognizes how smart she is, how kind and how loyal – not to mention how much she could learn from this 16-year-old who has seen more terrible things than she could even imagine.
“Truly there is no flag for us floating people. We are millions, but we are not a nation. We cannot stay together. Maybe we get together in ones and twos, for a day or a month or even a year, but then the wind changes and carries the hope away. Death came and I left in fear. Now all I have is my shame and the memory of bright colors and the echo of Yevette’s laugh. Sometimes I feel as lonely as the Queen of England.”
You can read a Q&A with Chris Cleave about the origins of the book on his website, and the whole incredible book is only $10 on Amazon. Read it to find out what happens for yourself.