By Sarah L. Courteau
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
By Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster. 271 pp. $24
"Little Bee" deserves a warning label: "Do not judge this book by its cover. Contents under pressure." Despite the cutesy title (the book was more sensibly published in Britain as "The Other Hand") and the coy book-flap description ("It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it"), "Little Bee" will blow you away.
Like Ian McEwan's propulsive novel "Enduring Love," in which a fatal hot-air balloon accident binds together two strangers who witness it, "Little Bee," by Guardian columnist Chris Cleave, hinges on a single horrific encounter. On a beach in Nigeria, the lives of Little Bee, a teenager from a small village, and Sarah O'Rourke, editor of a posh British women's magazine, are brought into brutal conjunction. Little Bee and her older sister have the misfortune to live on valuable Nigerian oil deposits, for which their family pays a deadly price. Sarah and her husband, heedless tourists out for a walk in the sand, are confronted in an instant with a choice: Save the girls at great personal cost or ignore them.
Though the scene doesn't come until later in the book, it casts a queasy spell over the novel from the beginning, which finds Little Bee in a casually dehumanizing British immigrant detention center two years later. She's plotting her suicide if "the men" ever come for her again. (Her Nigerian enemies and the interests they work for are never explicitly identified because Little Bee herself understands only that they were paid to remove her people.) Little Bee is a young woman with a past so damaging that it seems to negate the possibility of a future, but her tensile stubbornness keeps her going. "Take it from me," she says at the outset, "a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived." Her very name is a mechanism for survival: On the run from their pursuers after the rest of their village was destroyed, she and her sister plucked new names from the air to replace their true ones, "which spoke so loudly of their tribe and of their region." Little Bee has taught herself English from newspapers during her detainment, but her reference points are still in Nigeria. The voice Cleave has created for her illustrates the forcible dislocations of a globalized world.
Sarah, meanwhile, has a life that invites envy: a whip-smart husband, an adorable son, a satisfying adulterous affair and a glamorous career; the full story is more complex, though, and Cleave gives it to us with unpitying sympathy. When Sarah's husband spirals into depression after their crisis on the Nigerian beach and commits suicide, Sarah is left to reckon with her own moral culpability and a bereft 3-year-old. Then Little Bee, for whom she feels a powerful and naive responsibility, appears at her door, sprung under dubious circumstances from the detention facility.
In restrained, diamond-hard prose, Cleave alternates between these two characters' points of view as he pulls the threads of their dark -- but often funny -- story tight. What unfolds between them in a few short weeks as they struggle to right worlds turned upside down is both surprising and inevitable, thoroughly satisfying if also heart-rending.
Nearly four years ago Cleave's first novel, "Incendiary," about an al-Qaeda bomb attack at a London soccer match, was published in Britain on the very day that suicide bombers killed 52 people in London's transit system. This gruesome coincidence called into question whether Cleave's talent was responsible for the attention the novel received. "Little Bee" leaves little doubt that Cleave deserves the praise. He has carved two indelible characters whose choices in even the most straitened circumstances permit them dignity -- if they are willing to sacrifice for it. "Little Bee" is the best kind of political novel: You're almost entirely unaware of its politics because the book doesn't deal in abstractions but in human beings.
Courteau is the literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly.