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Little Bee by Chris Cleave
Original UK title: The Other Hand

Anchor Canada 2009
Trade Paperback with Flaps
266 pages

After two years locked up in a refugee detention centre outside London, Little Bee has finally been released. The sixteen year old Nigerian girl spent her time there having nightmares, coming up with new and inventive ways of killing herself should the bad men come, and perfecting her Queen’s English.

Now free but still not legal, she goes to the only people she knows in England, journalists Andrew O’Rourke and his wife Sarah Summers. But when she arrives it is to find Sarah about to leave with her son Charlie, perpetually dressed as Batman, for Andrew’s funeral.

Little Bee is about the tragic, frightening circumstances of Little Bee meeting Sarah and Andrew in Nigeria, how Sarah lost her finger and how guilt slowly drove Andrew to suicide, the deep connection between Sarah and Little Bee and how they help each other. It is also about the things people flee from – atrocities that are denied – and how the rest of the world turns its shoulder. It is about the atrocious conditions in detention centres – centres that are, in essences, concentration camps.

Little Bee herself is the kind of character you instantly fall in love with and care deeply for, from the first moment. She came vividly alive, an endearing mix of naiveté and worldly wisdom, of strength and vulnerability, of kindness and that oh-so-human quality of selfishness, which her story proves we all have. She doesn’t try to milk your emotions or hide the truth from you, though it’s understandable that she delays in telling it, being as judgemental as we are. Her voice is charismatic, intelligent, sweet, and funny, and this relieves some of the sadness of the story – it’s not a depressing read, but a life-affirming one.

There’s tragedy in her story, and at the same time laughter, often in surprising ways. Little Bee often speaks with irony without realising it – even her suicide plans take on the humour of extremes, a kind of farce that comes with being pushed further than you should ever have to go:

In the [detention centre’s] canteen there was a television that was always on. I began to learn about life in your country. I watched programs called Love Island and Hell’s Kitchen and What Wants to be a Millionaire? and I worked out how I would kill myself on all of those shows. Drowning, knives, and ask the audience.

One day the detention officers gave all of us a copy of a book called LIFE IN THE UNITED KINGDOM. It explains the history of your country and how to fit in. I planned on how I would kill myself in the time of Churchill (stand under bombs), Victoria (throw myself under a horse), and Henry the Eighth (marry Henry the Eighth). I worked out how to kill myself under Labour and Conservative governments, and why it was not important to have a plan for suicide under the Liberal Democrats. I began to understand how your country worked. (p.49)

It’s not the prospect of suicide that makes me laugh at this passage, or the circumstances that have led to Little Bee’s need to always be prepared to take her own life – because it’s infinitely preferable to the alternative, should the men come. No, it’s the bleak absurdity of it all, the fact that there’s no one in the world looking out and protecting Little Bee that is so awful it’s painful (drawing attention to our own uselessness and uncaring, defeatist attitude), and also her astute yet naïve understanding of the country and culture that she finds herself in. I know sad things aren’t supposed to be funny, but that’s how irony works. (At the end of the day, it’s hard to beat the British at this kind of sharp-edged irony.)

Sarah is also a blend of world-weary, sad, resilient and strong. She’s a familiar person, with real flaws, floundering a bit yet able to rise to the occasion, to a need. She’s the character most familiar to us because she’s Western – and yet she goes further than we would ever think of in making other people’s problems her own. In this case, it’s the Nigerians whose villages were torched and families slaughtered, and who themselves live in fear of being caught and killed because of what they saw, all because oil was found under their homes – these are the people Sarah tries to help. The social and political commentary – “accusations”, I should say – doesn’t try to play it coy or be too subtle. What it does try to do is highlight the situation – one that the Nigerian and British governments have denied – and leave no wiggle room. The author, a columnist for the Guardian, makes no bones about his political stance; that combined with a skilfully written story earns him my respect.

Bringing it down to the human element, making it a story about people with names and faces and families and hopes and stories to tell, just like us, humanises a people who, in the face of atrocity, are so easy to ignore. It doesn’t matter that this is fiction: it’s based on true circumstances and contains many real stories. (It did remind me of another story I read recently, which touches on the clash between north and south Nigeria over oil and all the human casualties – in Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them)

One thing I really appreciated about the plot was how it brings the atrocities that happen ELSEWHERE, home. Around the turn of the century, detention centres were a hot, contentious issue in Australia. Refugees – called “boat people” because that’s how they arrived – were locked up in these detention centres for years. The centres themselves, in pure Howard-Bush neo-liberal fashion, were privatised and out-sourced to an American “security” company which hired 18 year old dole bludgers with no training to work there, and gave them guns. Meanwhile, the refugees – “queue-jumpers”, as Howard loved to call them – protested the conditions (and politics) in the only ways available to them: self-starvation sewing their lips shut, suicide, things like that. (And you thought we treated the Aborigines badly.)

The structure of this novel was excellent. It moved back and forth in time, sometimes revisiting the same scene more than once, in a different way, shedding new light on an incident that didn’t seem important the first time round. It created a tight narrative, one that made you question and anticipate and wonder. There’s also tension, dread and fear, especially towards the end. The ending itself is perhaps a bit overly dramatic and a wee bit manipulative, but I was so THERE that I didn’t care, and it made me cry. This isn’t a story I’ll be able to forget any time soon, and I can’t quite get it out of head that Little Bee isn’t actually real but fictional. These things add up to a high recommendation from me.

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