Format: Trade Paperback, 288 pages
Publisher: Anchor Canada
ISBN: 978-0-385-66531-5 (0-385-66531-8)
Pub Date: August 25, 2009
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Sarah Summers is enjoying a holiday on a Nigerian beach when a young girl named Little Bee crashes irrevocably into her life. All it takes is a brief and horrifying moment of crisis — a terrifying scene that no reader will forget. Afterwards, Sarah and Little Bee might expect never to see each other again. But Little Bee finds Sarah’s husband’s wallet in the sand, and smuggles herself on board a cargo vessel with his address in mind. She spends two years in detention in England before making her way to Sarah’s house, with what will prove to be devastating timing.
Chapter by chapter, alternating between Little Bee’s voice and Sarah’s, Chris Cleave wholly and caringly portrays two very different women trying to cope with events they’d never imagined. Little Bee is experiencing all the fullness and emptiness of the rich world for the first time, and her observations are hopeful, charming and piercing: “Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl,” she says: “Everyone would be pleased to see me coming.”
Sarah is more cynical and disheartened, a successful magazine editor trying to find meaning in the face of turmoil at home and work. As the story develops, however, we learn about what matters most to her, including her fierce, protective love for her funny little son (“From the Spring of 2007 until the end of that long summer when Little Bee came to live with us,” Sarah says, “my son removed his Batman costume only at bathtimes.”). Sarah is trying to find herself as much as Little Bee is — and, unexpectedly, each character discovers a ray of hope in the other.
What follows when Little Bee comes back into Sarah’s life is a powerful story of reconciliation and healing, but it is mixed in with a generous helping of satire about the daily difficulties of modern life. This is a novel about important issues, from refugee policy to the devastating effects of violence, but more than that, it does something only great fiction can: Little Bee teaches us what it is like to live through experiences most of us think of only as far off disasters in the news.
As ever, the author says it best: “It’s an uplifting, thrilling, universal human story, and I just worked to keep it simple. One brave African girl; one brave Western woman. What if one just turned up on the other’s doorstep one misty morning and asked, Can you help? And what if that help wasn’t just a one-way street?”
NOMINEE 2009 - Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Eurasia)
A note from the author
I went to a concentration camp by mistake. As a student at Oxford University I’d take any paid work during the vacation, so one morning I climbed into a minibus with some other casual labourers, destination unknown. We passed through a razor-wire perimeter fence. Thin brown faces appeared in the morning mist. Fingers clawed the wire. The minibus dropped us into a crush of agitated people, pleading with us in half the languages on earth. Despair and confusion reigned.
This terrible place was a removal centre for asylum seekers. We’d been hired to serve canteen meals to people being returned to the murderous regimes they’d fled. These were the people my country had decided it wouldn’t help. It was hard to look them in the eye. Everyone ate with plastic spoons. It would have been brave to provide people in their predicament with anything sharper.
After detention in heartbreaking conditions, most would be forcibly deported to countries where many would be tortured and killed. Mass deportation continues to this day. It doesn’t take a genius to point out the parallel with the Holocaust. It doesn’t take a novelist to realise this isn’t terribly British.
What was remarkable, though, was the stoicism and sheer grace of some of these doomed people. Years later, it was a humbling experience and a fierce delight to research this novel. The refugees I heard from brought me to unexpected discoveries: the beauty of Nigerian English and Jamaican English, the startling graveyard humour of refugees, and the moral courage of the many citizens who help asylum seekers, in defiance of their authorities. It’s an uplifting, thrilling, universal human story, and I just worked to keep it simple. One brave African girl; one brave Western woman. What if one just turned up on the other’s doorstep one misty morning and asked, Can you help? And what if that help wasn’t just a one-way street?
From the Hardcover edition.
"A very special book indeed. Profound, deeply moving and yet light in touch, it explores the nature of loss, hope, love and identity with atrocity its backdrop. Read it and think deeply."
-The Bookseller (UK)
Chris Cleave was born in London and spent his early years in Cameroon. He studied Experimental Psychology at Balliol College, Oxford, and has worked as a barman, sailor, and internet person, and now writes a column for the Guardian newspaper. His debut novel Incendiary won a 2006 Somerset Maugham Award, was shortlisted for the 2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize, won the United States Book-of-the-Month Club’s First Fiction award for 2005 and is now a feature film. Chris Cleave lives in London with his wife and two children.
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