by Chris Cleave
Today is World Refugee Day. First observed in 2001, it is dedicated to raising awareness of the plight of refugees all across the world. African Refugee Day had been observed in some countries prior to the UN declaring it World Refugee Day, but the Organization of African Unity agreed to have the two days coincide.
To honor World Refugee Day, today I’m going to talk about Little Bee. Little Bee is a Nigerian refugee in the United Kingdom. She and her sister witnessed the destruction of their village by an oil company’s thugs, and were hunted down to eliminate the witnesses. In a chance encounter on a Nigerian beach, she met Sarah and Andrew, a couple from London trying to save their marriage by going on an exotic holiday. The encounter changes the lives of all three of them, and when Little Bee makes it to the United Kingdom, they are the only people she knows. She arrives at their home on the day of Andrew’s funeral, and Sarah takes her in.
The book switches between the viewpoints of Sarah and Little Bee, and it does suffer from that, a bit. I couldn’t wait for Sarah’s chapters to be done so I could get back to Little Bee. Her viewpoint – her voice – was enthralling. Some first-person views are just the person thinking to themselves, while some first-person views are the person talking to the reader. Sarah was the first type, and Little Bee the second. Reading her explanations of the differences between her old life and her new life, and how the girls from her village wouldn’t understand things, was amazing. I was hooked within the first ten pages of the book, specifically her note about scars:
I ask you right here please to 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? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.
The events Little Bee talks about having witnessed are horrifying. And she recognizes that. She could be bitter, she could be depressed, she could be insane, but she is not. She manages to have hope, and even joy. She sees other refugees around her commit suicide, and in fact always has a plan for how to kill herself “if the men come.” Because the stories of refugees always begin with “the men came and they…” and she’d rather kill herself than let herself be taken. Despite this, she has hope for a future. Or perhaps she simply takes joy in the present.
The book is not a happy one. Like Sing, Unburied, Sing, it’s an important book but not exactly an enjoyable one. There are enjoyable parts. But there are very hard parts, too. (I should note, here, a TRIGGER WARNING for a graphic description of rape, when Little Bee tells Sarah what happened to Little Bee’s older sister.) It did not end the way I wanted it to, though it ended in an unexpected way. I suppose it was too much to hope for a Happy Ever After when the vast majority of refugees don’t get one.
For all that there were very tough scenes to get through in this book, I’m still putting it on my Best of 2018 list. Little Bee’s voice and viewpoint is amazing, the story is well researched, and the plot absorbing. This is a book I’d like to have on my shelf.
This book fills the “book talked about in another book” (Tolstoy and the Purple Chair) prompt for PopSugar 2018, and the “refugee MC” prompt for Booked 2018.
From the cover of Little Bee:
We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book.
It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it.
Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this:
This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face. Two years later, they meet again – the story starts there . . .
Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds.