Be free, Little Bee: A book review on Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Have you ever thought about the value of a British pound coin? Not its monetary value but what it represents? For me, this never crossed my mind. A coin is a coin and money is money- you trade it for things that you either want or need. However, to Little Bee, the British pound coin is more than a coin. To her, it represents freedom.

Little Bee is a novel written by Chris Cleave. It’s a New York Times Bestseller that has sold over millions of copies in print with three pages of the book dedicated to glowing reviews. It has been published in twenty countries and in the UK, Little Bee is published as ‘The Other Hand’. It was first published back in 2008 and even though it has been over ten years since the book was released, I was fortunate enough to find a copy in a second-hand bookstall in Burjuman Centre, Dubai, UAE.

Brace yourself, this book is rather dark.

The story has two female protagonists and it is written in first person with the perspective switching between Little Bee who is a refugee from Nigeria and Sarah O’Rourke, an affluent English woman. The tale starts with Little Bee being held at an immigration detention center. She has been in the detention centre for two years and it is through her perspective that the reader can see the challenges that asylum seekers face when arriving in England.

Sarah O’Rourke is the second protagonist of the story and she is the opposite of Little Bee. She lives in affluence, is the head of a magazine named Nixie and has a family of three. Their worlds collided in a Nigerian beach where Sarah and her husband were both forced to make a difficult choice. Two years later, Sarah meets Little Bee again in England and this encounter changes her life. Frankly, between the two characters, I prefer Little Bee because of her sense of humor.

Little Bee’s humor lightens the dark themes in the book which are revealed in the later chapters. Initially, I thought that this was going to be a light read because the first few pages were filled with Little Bee’s amusing thoughts on how she would share stories about her life in England to her sister Nkiruka and fellow villagers back in Nigeria. However, I was taken off guard when the book touched on suicide, man slaughter and rape as the story progressed. The dark turn of events took me by surprise and those parts of the book were the portions that I did not particularly enjoy. The fact that they were being experienced by a young, fourteen year old girl made it even more depressing.   

Yet, it is through these harrowing circumstances that Little Bee’s personality and her strong determination to survive shines. Despite everything that she has experienced, Little Bee is extremely resilient and this is what motivated me to complete the book. I kept flipping through the pages because I wanted to see her win. However, this wasn’t the case. For many books, the endings are definite. You can easily say whether it is a happy ending or a sad ending but this isn’t so for Little Bee. The book ends with soldiers approaching her and there really was no way for the reader to know whether she was going to live or die. After rooting for Little Bee to have the chance to live the life that she deserves, the ending of the book left me dissatisfied and it made me feel that the story is unfinished. It left me wondering: what happens next?  The other factors that I did not particularly enjoy about the book is that the chapters were long and the characters spoke with an accent that I sometimes found difficult to understand.

However, even though there were certain aspects of the novel that I was not happy with, this is still a literary gem that is worthy of the praise it received. What makes this book unique is that it boldly discusses atrocities happening in certain parts of the world and it stimulates the reader to think about these ethical dilemmas. Prior to reading this book, I had the impression that the problems asylum seekers faced would end the moment they gained asylum in another country. However, reading the book made me learn that this wasn’t the case.

Overall, Little Bee is an interesting book to read. However, I would suggest that you brace yourself. It is a moving, bittersweet novel that will leave you saddened yet inspired by the sheer determination of a sixteen year old, Nigerian refugee to survive and her ability to remain compassionate despite the horrors she has experienced.

Quotable quotes:

“We must see all scars as beauty okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, ‘I survived’.”

“Sad words are just another beauty. A sad story means, this storyteller is alive. The next thing you know something fine will happen to her, something marvelous, and then she will turn around and smile.”

“To be well in your mind you have first to be free.”

“Happiness isn’t something one can pick up off the shelf, it’s something one has to work at.”

“How I would love to be a British pound. A pound is free to travel to safety, and we are free to watch it go. This is the human triumph. This is called, globalization.”

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