Little Bee is journalist Chris Cleave’s second novel, after Incendiary, which eerily presaged the al-Qaeda attack on the London Underground.
The Story: While on an ill-advised holiday to Nigeria to repair their failing marriage, Andrew Rourke, a journalist, and his wife, Sarah, editor of a fashion magazine, meet Little Bee, a 16-year-old girl, and her older sister, Kindness. The girls are running for their lives from the men who have ransacked their village for oil. Even after suffering an act of unimaginable violence that day, the participants can hardly imagine how their lives will intertwine—and be irrevocably changed. As Andrew spins out of control and Sarah struggles to raise the couple’s child, the appearance of Little Bee, now a refugee who has come to London in search of the Rourkes, her last best hope, forces both women to make difficult choices.
Simon & Schuster. 271 pages. $24. ISBN: 1416589635
"This utterly enthralling page-turner boasts no less than seven shocking developments in its unfolding plot; describing more than one or two could seriously hamper a reader’s ability to savor this remarkable novel’s clockwork magic. … Little Bee is a harrowing and heartening marvel of a novel." John Marshall
"Every now and then, you come across a character in a book whose personality is so salient and whose story carries such devastating emotional force it’s as if she becomes a fixed part of your consciousness. So it is with the charmingly named title character in Chris Cleave’s brilliant and unforgettable Little Bee." Tyrone Beason
"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. … 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." Sarah L. Courteau
"[A] thought-provoking examination of the collision of two diverse cultures. … Cleave, unsatisfyingly, falters a little, dipping into contrived plot devices and the too-easy pull of melodrama." Vikram Johri
"Suffice it to say that this novel takes as its starting point unspeakable violence, but that it is accessible and humane, rich and rewarding." Maya Muir
"Mindless brutality, too abhorrent to contemplate, is vividly exposed in this book. … Through a suspenseful narrative, Cleave makes the case that free people have a responsibility to the oppressed." Mandy Twaddell
San Francisco Chronicle
"In telling a story about the permeability of borders, both emotional and real, Cleave pushes his own boundaries maybe further than they were meant to go. There are stories out there that demand to be told, but an author has to know whether he’s the one that should do the telling." Margot Kaminski
Chris Cleave’s Little Bee works because the unflinching, brutal story balances an outwardly political motive with rich, deep character development (and even some welcome humor), focusing narrowly on events before broadening to reveal some larger truths. Cleave’s firm grasp of human nature and his unsparing disdain for injustice allow him to articulate lives as different as those of Little Bee and the less-likeable Sarah; both characters, though, are unforgettable. Comparisons between Cleave and fellow Brits Ian McEwan and John Banville are apt. The only dissent came from the San Francisco Chronicle, which took issue with the narrative voices and the rushed pace of the story. All others agreed, however, that Cleave’s sophomore effort is, as the Chicago Sun-Times succinctly put it, "a loud shout of talent."
Also by the Author
Incendiary (2005): A bomb rips apart a London soccer match—as well as the life of our nameless narrator, whose husband and four-year-old son die in the terrorist attack. This epistolary novel, addressed to Osama bin Laden, records the attempt on the part of the bereaved working-class widow to understand how and why and who he is. ( Selection Nov/Dec 2005)
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.
Questions for Discussion
1. “Sad words are just another beauty. A sad story means, this storyteller is alive” (p. 9). For Little Bee and other asylum seekers, the story of their life thus far is often all they have. What happens to the characters that carry their stories with them, both physically and mentally? What happens when we try to forget our past? How much control over their own stories do the characters in the book seem to have?
2. Little Bee tells the reader, “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” (p. 9). Which characters in the story are left with physical scars? Emotional scars? Do they embrace them as beautiful? Do you have any scars you’ve come to embrace? Did you feel more connected to Little Bee as a narrator after this pact?
3. Little Bee strives to learn the Queen’s English in order to survive in the detention center. How does her grasp of the language compare with Charlie’s? How does the way each of these two characters handle the English language help to characterize them?
4. How did it affect your reading experience to have two narrators? Did you trust one woman more than the other? Did you prefer the voice of one above the other?
5. Little Bee credits a small bottle of nail polish for “saving her life” while she was in the detention center (p. 7). Is there any object or act that helps you feel alive and beautiful, even when everything else seems to be falling apart?
6. Of the English language Little Bee says, “Every word can defend itself. Just when you go to grab it, it can split into two separate meanings so the understanding closes on empty air” (p. 12). What do you think she means by this? Can you think of any examples of English words that defend themselves? Why is language so important to Little Bee?
7. Little Bee says of horror films, “Horror in your country is something you take a dose of to remind yourself that you are not suffering from it” (p. 45). Do you agree? Was reading this novel in any way a dose of horror for you? How did it help you reflect on the presence or lack of horror in your own life?
8. Little Bee figures out the best way to kill herself in any given situation, just in case “the men come suddenly.” How do these plans help Little Bee reclaim some power? Were you disturbed by this, or were you able to find the humor in some of the scenarios she imagines?
9. What does Udo changing her name to Little Bee symbolize for you? How does her new name offer her protection? Do you think the name suits her?
10. “To have an affair, I began to realize, was a relatively minor transgression. But to really escape from Andrew, to really become myself, I had to go the whole way and fall in love” (p. 161-162). Do you agree with Sarah that an affair is a minor transgression? How did falling in love with someone else help Sarah become herself? What role did Andrew play in perpetuating Sarah’s extramarital affair?
11. When Little Bee finds that Andrew has hanged himself she thinks, “Of course I must save him, whatever it costs me, because he is a human being.” And then she thinks, “Of course I must save myself, because I am a human being too” (p. 194). How do the characters in the story decide when to put themselves first and when to offer charity? Is one human life ever more valuable than another? What if one of the lives in question is your own?
Enhancing Your Book Club
1. Visit Chris Cleave’s website. You’ll find videos, reviews, behind-the-book extras and interviews.
2. Little Bee says, “I have noticed, in your country, I can say anything so long as I say that is the proverb in my country. Then people will nod their heads and look very serious” (p. 180). Take this opportunity to make up some proverbs to share with your book club. Are there any sayings from your culture that might be a good start?
3. Little Bee and her sister chose new names for themselves. Have your book club members rename one another. Choose names based on characteristics, like Little Bee’s sister Kindness, or on things in nature, like Little Bee.
4. To find out more about asylum seekers here in the U.S. visit Human Rights First.