by Chris Cleave
When Sarah O’Rourke, the editor of a Vogue–ish monthly in Britain, takes her husband on a junket to a Nigerian resort in what she knows will likely be a futile attempt to save her marriage (futile because she’s not all that keen to save it), they become forever and fatally linked to the lives of two African sisters. We’re pretty far into the novel before we learn what actually occurred that day on what was supposed to have been a bucolic beach. In fact, we first meet Little Bee, the youngest of the sisters, two years after the events on the beach, when she’s uneasily residing at a detention center in England. She is spooked by the past and, fearful of every encounter, always planning various ways to kill herself, should “the men” ever come near her again. The events in Nigeria, how and why Little Bee and Sarah reconnect in England, and what follows their reunion, form the basis of Little Bee (Simon & Schuster, 2009), an unforgettable novel by Chris Cleave.
Cleave’s writing is breathtaking and the story will, quite simply, break your heart. He moves readers effortlessly between the points of view of both women, so that we come to understand both Little Bee’s and Sarah’s thoughts, as well as the various actions they are forced by choice and circumstance to take. Cleave’s decision to make Sarah not always either totally admirable or even entirely likeable (although her actions on that beach in Nigeria seem to me to be honorable), goes a long way toward making her much more three-dimensional and real than many fictional characters seem to be. Because of the solid characterizations, the dynamite ending, and the particulars of the plot, Little Bee is an excellent choice for book groups.