The selection for May for the Field Notes Book Group was suggested by one of the members, and it’s a great read and an even better seed for discussions. The book is Little Bee by Chris Cleave, and we’ll be meeting to discuss it at the library on May 21 from 11 to 12:30.
The book, told in the alternating voices of Little Bee and Sarah, begins with Little Bee, a young Nigerian girl, languishing in a detention center for illegal immigrants in England. She’s been there for two years with few prospects of ever getting out, when a seeming miracle occurs and she and three other refugee women are released from the center. Little Bee knows only two people in the country of England, Sarah and Sarah’s husband, Andrew, and so when she has to find a place to stay, she calls Andrew, setting in motion a series of events tragic and poignant.
The backstory is revealed slowly, both from Little Bee’s point of view and Sarah’s, but it’s clear from the outset of the book that the initial encounter between the couple of Little Bee on a beach in Nigeria was shattering for all of them. The whole story is revealed at about the midpoint of the book, and it is every bit as terrible as you, the reader, have been dreading it would be, and then the question is, what are these people going to do now that Little Bee is here in England.
It’s not a light or a funny book, but the writing is terrific, even when the characters are relating incredibly poignant and painful experiences. While Sarah, an upper middle class married woman with a child and a career as an editor of a fashion magazine, is the sort of person we meet in many novels, she has quirks of her own, and her past interactions with Little Bee, the reason she was in Nigeria in the first place and her response to the incident, together with her actions once Little Bee arrives on her doorstep, make her unique and intriguing.
Other characters, including four year old Charlie who insists on wearing his Batman suit everywhere and being addressed as Batman, Andrew, Sarah’s husband, and Little Bee’s older sister, are well-developed and interesting as well.
But the real heart of the story is Little Bee, and she is a memorable and powerful character, her voice rich and full, her courage and resilience marvelous. More than anything else, you read this story to root for her, to wish for her success and her happy ending.
A book that asks questions about the moral responsibility of First World people in Third World tragedies, that looks at English civilization from a very different and eye-opening perspective, and brings us into a compelling story of human loss and love: come read and discuss Little Bee at the next Field Notes meeting on May 21. We’ll even have donuts and coffee!