Tuesday, July 13, 2010
In Chris Cleave’s sophomore novel, “Little Bee,” resilience is not something inherent. It is something earned, something cultured by both daily tedium and gaping loss. It is something that two women – complete strangers, practically – must summon when their lives once again intersect.
Though we will learn her real name and story later, when the book begins, Little Bee is a teenage Nigerian refugee who is released from a bleak British detainment center on what she later learns is another's technicality.
After two years in the facility, her mind is somewhere between a beach in her homeland, where “the men” came and murdered her family during her country’s ongoing oil wars, and the concrete gloom of the institution, where she fantasizes about myriad (and often humorous) ways to kill herself should these men – or any men, for that matter - return.
So afraid of "the men" is she that she lives with bound breasts and purposefully dingy clothes, terrified of any attention. Her only happiness lies in a hand-me-down bottle of red nail polish, which provides her with proof of life underneath steel-toed leather boots (necessary, in case the men come and she needs a weapon).
Little Bee leaves with one tattered business card in hand, and after a botched encounter with a London cabbie, sets off on foot to find its owner – only to discover that he no longer exists.
Sarah O’Rourke, the novel’s other protagonist, is a successful magazine editor living in the London suburbs with her husband Andrew and three-year-old son, Charlie, who refuses to take off his Batman cape lest the “baddies” rush in. Her day’s biggest challenge consists of editing articles on orgasms while sending secret texts to her caddish lover, Lawrence. (A film version, by the way, is in the works, with Nicole Kidman in Sarah’s role.)
But while it’s easy to write off Sarah as a fictional byproduct of chick-lit culture, a strong woman is still in there. The beauty of this novel lies in watching her emerge, which Cleave does through seamless flashbacks of great sacrifice and redemption (which I won’t spoil for you, but, as you can guess, involve Little Bee.)
When Little Bee arrives at the address listed on the business card – Sarah’s address - she arrives to a funeral. Andrew hung himself in the garage earlier that week; services are scheduled in a few hours. It is at this point their stories truly converge and take off.
As sobering as much of the book is, Cleave takes great care in balancing it with an undercurrent of lightheartedness. Little Bee’s imaginary conversations with the "girls back home" and the Queen of England are both hilarious and heartbreaking. Meanwhile, little Charlie’s obsession with Bruce Wayne and the Penguin provides relief from the death of his father, but later leads to a terrifying plot point in the book.
One minor gripe I had with this novel was the introduction of Sarah’s lover, Lawrence, an upper echelon government drone who is as bland and dour as the cafeteria food in the detainment center. Once he learns of Little Bee’s illegal immigration status (and later, a greater secret of hers), he becomes needlessly cruel and distant. It’s almost as if Cleave realized he needed another bad guy (you know, on top of machete-wielding Nigerians and lecherous customs officers) and found the first secondary character he could mold into a villain.
The book’s ending is sad, expected, and open to interpretation. But perhaps its theme is best summarized by an earlier conversation Little Bee has with this enemy.
“I don’t get you,” Lawrence tells Little Bee. “If you understood how serious your situation was, perhaps you wouldn't smile.”
“If I could not smile, I think my situation would be even more serious.”