Shelf Sample: Little Bee

Chris Cleave's novel, Little Bee (Simon & Schuster, $24, 9781416589631/1416589635, February 10, 2009), will amaze and delight you, and break your heart. It's one of the finest books I've read in years, from its lyrical opening lines to its surprising end. It tells the story of a young Nigerian refugee, Little Bee, who has made her way to England but has ended up in a detention center. She is looking for an English couple, Andrew and Sarah O'Rourke, whom she met on a Nigerian beach two years earlier. Told from the viewpoints of Little Bee and Sarah, the story is tragic and sweet; its wisdom and power last long after the finish.

In the detention center, Little Bee learned to make herself undesirable, binding her breasts and cutting her hair. But she has a secret:
Once a week, I sat on the foam mattress on my bed and I painted my toenails. I found the little bottle of nail varnish at the bottom of a charity box . . . If I ever discover the person who gave it then I will tell them, for the cost of one British pound and ninety-nine pence, they saved my life. Because this is what I did in that place, to remind myself I was alive . . . underneath my steel toe caps I wore bright red nail varnish. Sometimes when I took my boots off I screwed up my eyes against the tears and I rocked back and fro, shivering from the cold.
When she leaves the detention center, after a paperwork mix-up, she looks at the scars of another girl:
. . . a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty . . . Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.

In a few breaths' time I will speak some sad words to you. But you must hear them the same way we have agreed to see scars now. 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.
Sarah, at the funeral for her husband, Andrew, wonders what to tell her son about Little Bee, while she massages the stump of her middle finger:
I miss my finger most on deadline days, when the copy checkers have all gone home and I'm typing up the last minute additions to my magazine. We published an editorial once where I said I was "wary of sensitive men." I meant to say "weary," of course, and after a hundred outraged letters from earnest boyfriends who'd happened to glance at my piece on their partner's coffee table (presumably in between giving a back rub and washing the dishes), I began to realize just how weary I was. It was a typographical accident, I told them. I didn't add, it was the kind of typographical accident that is caused by a steel machete on a Nigerian beach. I mean, what does one call the type of meeting where one gains an African girl and loses E, D and C? I do not think you have a word for it in your language--that's what Little Bee would say.

If I were still a bookseller, I'd sell Little Bee with a money-back guarantee.--Marilyn Dahl

From Little Bee by Chris Cleave. Copyright © 2008 by Chris Cleave. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.


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