I’m not sure how I missed this book when it first came out in 2008, but I regret that I didn’t read it until now. Part of me wishes I hadn’t read it yet, so that I could enjoy reading it for the first time again. Little Bee, by Chris Cleave, is one of those rare books that has both brains and beauty in one package. I was alternately amazed, entertained, and, in the end, emotionally wrung out (in the most satisfying way). More than once I had to lay the book down and walk away from it before I broke into small pieces. At other times, this book sent me digging frantically through my purse for a pencil so I could underline a passage that was so luminous I wanted to tattoo it on my wrist. It’s worth noting that these two reactions were sometimes triggered within the same paragraph.
Little Bee is the story of two very different women from two very different cultures. Sixteen year old Little Bee, a Nigerian refugee, arrives in to London, where her story entwines with that of Sarah, editor of a glossy women’s magazine and mother of Charlie (a.k.a. Batman). Cleave gets these characters just right, creating smart, insightful, and strong women that help us come to a compassionate understanding of these two cultures: the first world and the developing world. How Cleave knits these worlds together into this seamless story is extraordinary. He chooses to narrate the story from the perspective of both women, alternating the voice from one chapter to the next. Four year old Charlie, in addition to being a fully fleshed and fascinating character all on his own, gives us another frame from which to enter the story.
It is difficult to say almost anything about the plot of Little Bee without giving away too much, as it is the unfolding of events, and the way that Cleave structures the unfolding, that lends this story its fascinating shape. It’s like reverse origami. Cleave makes a paper swan, and, over the course of a few hundred pages, unfolds it until we can glimpse its heart. In the unfolding of this story, Cleave takes the time to show us how the light hits each fold and crease. These were the moments that brought me to tears, rather than any sad or devastating event; the moments when Cleave would render a detail so perfectly that it brought me right into the scene. Cleave doesn’t deny that bad things happen, but by illuminating the beauty in each moment, he shows us that beauty can make the bad things bearable.
Put Little Bee on your book club list, and give it away as gifts to friends and family. It’s complex, deep, socially relevant, and so well written that you will wish you could read it for the first time twice. The magic really is in the unfolding.