Survival of a stowaway

By Karen Campbell
March 30, 2009
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Nigeria is one of the world's largest petroleum exporting nations, and the Niger Delta region's rich supply of oil is both its blessing and its curse, creating a three-way power struggle among the impoverished indigenous peoples of the region, the Nigerian federal government, and the Western oil conglomerates that exploit the country's oil. Not surprisingly, it is the native villagers who come out on the bottom, victims of endless violence and corruption.

Out of this turbulent landscape comes one of the most vividly memorable and provocative characters in recent contemporary fiction. In Chris Cleave's heartwarming and heartbreaking "Little Bee," a young refugee stows away on a cargo ship to England after seeing something in her country that marks her for certain death. As she finds her footing in a new country, landing in the home of Sarah and Andrew O'Rourke, an English family she met on a lonely Nigerian beach, we gradually learn about where she has been and fear for where she is going. Along the way, her journey becomes a cautionary tale for examining our own consciences. What are the layers of experience that make us who we are, that crystallize into "identity?" What makes us human? How do we connect to the world around us? How do we hold onto hope?

When the story opens, 16-year-old Little Bee has spent two years in a refugee detention center near London, and Cleave's description of the center's horrific rules and conditions is a powerful indictment of a shameful system. But told through the voice of Little Bee, the account has a wry, gentle tone, bitterness edged out by resilience. From the beginning, the older girls told her "To survive you must look good or talk good. . . . The pretty ones and the talkative ones, we are allowed to stay." Little Bee learns the Queen's English, smoothing her path in a world where the mix of dialects could be impenetrable to those unwilling to listen. (The detention center dialogue is often hilarious.)

Little Bee spends much of her time in the detention center trying to decide how she will kill herself in a variety of situations, in case "the men come." "In the medical wing, morphine. In the cleaners' room, bleach. In the kitchens, boiling fat." The tone veers quickly between humor and horror, a very dark, biting humor to be sure, but usually skating along a thin blade of irony, the kind to make you laugh with a little grimace.

When Little Bee procures an unofficial release through a friend's feminine wiles, she calls Andrew, whose wallet she had found that day on the beach. With no documents, Andrew, Sarah, and their little son Charlie are her only hope. But by the time she makes her way to the O'Rourke's home, Andrew has committed suicide, finally succumbing, Sarah believes, to the "long, slow slide into the depression" that began that day on the beach in Nigeria, a day the events of which form the catastrophic crux of the novel.

Sarah takes in Little Bee, and over the summer, they become an odd but comforting family unit - Little Bee, clinging to the nickname she gave herself in a time of terror, Charlie, always in his Batman costume, ready to fight "baddies," and Sarah herself, still using her husband's surname, not quite ready to face the reality of life without him. "One white middle-class mother, one skinny black refugee girl, and one small Dark Knight from Gotham City. . . . We were exiles from reality, that summer. We were refugees from ourselves."

Andrew's death and Little Bee's appearance cause Sarah to reevaluate her whole world. Contrasting Little Bee's circumstances with her own relatively cushy life with an adorable child and the editorship of a fashion magazine, where the weightiest dilemma is deciding whether to run a feature on the hottest new sex toys or on a woman with "two ugly daughters and only enough money to pay for cosmetic surgery for one of them."

The shift in perspective when we finally learn of Little Bee's experience that fateful day on the beach is viscerally stunning and would be nearly impossible to bear had we not known of Little Bee's strength and resilience. Cleave paces the story beautifully, lacing it with wit, compassion, and, even at the darkest moments, a searing ray of hope.

Karen Campbell is a freelance writer based in Brookline.

By Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster, 273 pp., $24

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