- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 12, 2009

By Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster, $24, 271 pages

Sometimes Faithful Reader gets fooled. “Little Bee” was one of those times. For the first third of this captivating novel, I was certain the author was a young Nigerian woman much like the title character; then, further on, I wavered and began to think maybe she was British, like Sarah, the white character, whose voice alternates with that of Little Bee. And then, when I got to the very end and read the author’s bio information (something I try not to do before reading a book) I found, to my great surprise and a little embarrassment, that the creator of Little Bee and company is a man! (Hello, Book Reviewer School? Do you offer a refresher course?)

The book opens with an interesting imaginative conceit: “Most days I wish I was a British pound instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming. Maybe I would visit with you for the weekend and then suddenly, because I am fickle like that I would visit with the man from the corner shop instead — but you would not be sad because you would be eating a cinnamon bun, or drinking a cold Coca-Cola from the can, and you would never think of me again. We would be happy, like lovers who met on holiday and forgot each other’s names.”

With that, and two lines that soon follow — “A pound coin can go wherever it thinks it will be safest. It can cross deserts and oceans and leave the sound of gunfire and the bitter smell of burning thatch behind.” — author Chris Cleave has set up, caption-like, all the action of the rest of the book.

For Little Bee is on the run, all the way from her thatch-roofed Nigerian Delta Village to the crowded streets of London, and from there to its suburb of Kingston-upon-Thames and the home of the only savior she’s ever met, Sarah O’Rourke. Little Bee knows all too well the “sound of gunfire and the bitter smell of burning thatch.” For she and Nkiruka, her beloved older sister, had witnessed the fiery destruction of their village by mercenaries sent by Big Oil so it could turn the village into an oil field. Unlike the rest of their family and villagers, they managed to escape, which meant they could tell what happened — and that meant “the men” would always be after them. And so she, like so many others in Africa, has to run.

“Truly, there is no flag for us floating people. We are millions but we are not a nation. We cannot stay together. Maybe we get together in ones and twos, for a day or a month or maybe even a year, but then the wind changes and carries the hope away. Death came and I left in fear. Now all I have is my shame and the memory of bright colors. … ” (That’s the kind of paragraph that made me think the author was a young woman who had been there and had something done to her.)

Several years earlier, the men had come, and Little Bee and her sister were almost caught on a Nigerian beach adjacent to a posh resort where British magazine editor Sarah O’Rourke and her newspaper columnist husband, Andrew, were on a week’s vacation, Sarah having accepted the trip as a freebie from a government tourist board anxious show it was safe to travel to Nigeria. But it wasn’t safe, not at all, as things turned out.

The armed men offer the white couple an option not unlike the “choice” forced upon William Styron’s Sophie, and, thanks to an enormously noble decision made by Sarah (and, pointedly, not by her husband), Little Bee is spared. So it is to them she runs two years later, when she is released from an immigration detention center in Surrey. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot than that, so let it suffice to say that it is soon apparent Sarah needs Little Bee as much as Little Bee needs Sarah. As for Andrew, let’s just say he is no longer in the picture.

Complications ensue. Sarah has Batman, aka her 2-year-old son Charlie, who refuses to wear anything but his Batman costume. But she also has Lawrence, her married lover. Bee gets on famously with Charlie, and not at all well with Lawrence, who sees her as a threat to the safety of his love nest. Things get very complicated. At the end, it’s time for another choice, and, again, reality trumps romanticism.

In 2006, Mr. Cleave (who turns out to be a columnist for the Guardian in London as well as a novelist), hit it big with “Incendiary,” his first novel, which was about a terrorist attack on a London soccer stadium; unfortunately, the book was published the same day as the terrorist attack on a London tube station.

The book sold enormously well, and it won lots of prizes: the 2006 Somerset Maugham Award; on the short list for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize that same year; the Book-of-the-Month Club’s First Fiction Award in the States; and the Prix du Jury at the French Prix des Lecteurs in 2007. In “Little Bee,” he shows those accolades were no fluke.

Creating one believable character in a long work is hard enough, but to create two, and then also a child (one of the hardest things to get right in fiction), plus a very credible supporting cast of various ages, races and colors is most impressive. And, forgive me for what may be a sexist comment here, but for a man to produce two strong and very real-seeming women is a feat. There are times when Little Bee sounds almost too good to be true, and times when you wish Sarah would stop enumerating her losses and even times when Batman gets too precious. But overall, these are few and far between, and this interesting novel gives consistent pleasure throughout. True acts of heroism are rare these days, at least on the beaches of fancy resorts in countries not at war, but strife and human misery, especially in Africa, are all too easy to find (think Zimbabwe, Darfur and on and on). And Nigeria, with the world’s highest scam rate per capita, is not exactly a bright spot in what used to be called the Dark Continent. See also “I Do Not Come to You By Chance,” Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s recent novelization of what are called the Nigerian 419 Schemes (named for the section of that country’s criminal code that prohibits them).

Some critics have faulted Mr. Cleave, saying he mines violence for his stories, but I did not get that feeling here. If you can wring human emotions out of a complex set of characters and get the reader to think and even to care about moral dilemmas, that’s a very good day’s work, especially for a little bee.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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