by Chris Cleave (Simon & Schuster 2008)
Little Bee is the name taken by a Nigerian teenager who has fled to England after her village is destroyed and her family murdered by people who want to drill for oil in that place. After escaping from the burning village with her older sister, Bee had a chance encounter with a British couple on a Nigerian beach. The wife sacrifices a part of herself to save Bee; the husband cannot bring himself to do the same for the sister. Upon their return home, they can neither discuss nor forget the horrific incident on the beach. When Little Bee is accidentally released from the (fictional) Black Hill Immigration Removal Centre, where she has been incarcerated for two years since arriving in the U.K. as a stowaway, she finds her way to Sarah and Andrew’s home outside of London and changes their lives forever.
In some countries, I have heard, people do not rescue strangers because this puts the rescued one in their debt forever. That is what happens to Little Bee and Sarah: they rescue one another, and they are in each other’s debt. The story is narrated by both of them in alternating chapters. The reader is inexorably drawn into the story of the refugee girl, the professional woman, her husband, her lover, and her little boy, who was based on the author’s own son.
It’s a quick read (hard to put down) but a depressing one because it reminds us of how many places there are where people do really terrible things to others, and how the developed countries where we live turn away and refuse sanctuary to the refugees. Little Bee is a wonderful character: smart, brave, innocent but not naive, generous and practical. You really want to know her, and by the end of the book, you can only wish her well.