"Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming," says Little Bee, our eponymous, teenaged, Nigerian heroine. These first engaging paragraphs of Chris Cleave's novel Little Bee not only draw us in to Little Bee's tale, they also remind us of the instinctive racism that ethnic immigrants are subjected to every day.
Little Bee is a 16-year old Nigerian refugee who flees the Niger Delta oil war only to be kept in a UK immigration detention centre for 2 years. She is let out illegally with no place to go, no papers, and no prospects. She seeks out an English couple living in Surrey, Sarah and Andrew, whom she met during the conflict. Andrew, riddled with guilt over his own inability or unwillingness to help Little Bee at a crucial moment, kills himself upon seeing her face appear in his safe, suburban backyard. Sarah and Little Bee's lives become intertwined as Sarah tries to assuage her guilt and feeling of complicity in Little Bee's story by attempting to obtain British citizenship for her.
For an Anglo-Saxon middle-aged Englishman, the task of writing in a 16-year old Nigerian girl's voice sounds a little daunting, even riddled with political correctness pitfalls. But the strange part is, Little Bee's story is compelling and absorbing, and her voice is thoughtful and insightful. We leave the novel madly in love with her. Her narrative is surprisingly much more convincing than Sarah's.
In fact, if the novel has a glaring fault, Sarah's narrative is it. Her voice and dialogue are wooden and contrived and it is in writing of a white, uppermiddle class English woman, rather than a Nigerian immigrant, that Cleave falls prey to stereotypes. Cleave betrays a significant amount of disgust for Sarah's materialistic suburban life, and Sarah comes across as morally wishy-washy and, well, fairly boring. She is carrying on an affair with an odious man who might as be wearing a black cape and twirling a mustache, whilst tying Little Bee to a railroad for all the likeability and sympathy he is able to drum up from the reader. Her best friend is so vacuously promiscuous Samatha Jones would find her nauseating. If Sarah is redeemed at all, it is only because of her eventual attachment and devotion to Little Bee.
According to Cleave, the novel was partially inspired by the true story of Manuel Bravo, an Angolan asylum-seeker, who after four years of being held in an immigration detention centre, learned that he and his 9 year old son would be deported the next morning. Because unaccompanied minors cannot be deported, Bravo killed himself that evening so that his son would have the chance to stay in the UK until his 18th birthday.
The novel contains Western guilt in spades, and perhaps one of the reasons Sarah's narrative is so unconvincing is because Little Bee's story of watching family members murdered and fleeing from certain death diminishes Sarah's puerile problems of marital and professional discontent. Western stories become silly and small, and we squirm with discomfort when we read passages such as "the simple little word horror. It means something different to the people from my village. In your country, if you are not scared enough already, you can go to watch a horror film...For one hour you are haunted, and you do not trust anybody, and then the feeling fades away. Horror in your country is something you take a dose of to remind yoursef that you are not suffering from it. For me and the girls from my village, horror is a disease and we are sick with it. It is not an illness you can cure yourself of by standing up and letting the big red cinema seat fold itself up behind you. That would be a good trick."
Despite the flaws of Sarah's narrative, Little Bee offers us the best of what literary art can do. The novel puts a human face to asylym seekers and raises awareness to their plight in the UK, but it also reminds us to attempt to try to see the humanity behind statistics and new stories, to attempt to understand other people's stories, and attempt to emphathise more. We see ourselves in Andrew's inertia and guilt, but hope we would have at very least Sarah's reluctant ability to act. Cleave encourages his readers to remain engaged in the world, and in this endeavour he is very successful. I left the novel reminding myself to stay sympathetic, compassionate, and above all, alert and active against cruelty and violence wherever I come across it.