Here are the first two lines of the novel Little Bee by Chris Cleave: Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming.
Holy shit, right? I know! So I kept reading, and what unfolded was the most enthralling, poignant, provocative story I’ve read in a long time. When we meet Little Bee, she’s a young girl being held in a detention center in rural England, jailed for having immigrated from Nigeria. Illegally, of course. But when your parents have been killed, your village burned to ash and every girl you know has been raped, you just go with the flow. She calls herself Little Bee because her African name is too hard for Westerners to pronounce – and in this metaphorical way, we understand that she has lost who she was born to be, tucked it away to a corner of her brain like the memory of her first taste of ice cream – it’s something she can barely recall.
Little Bee’s jail friend has sex with a jail guard and the guard sets the two girls free. With no papers, though, they are essentially fugitives, and Little Bee heads toward the unlikely place she has labeled as her salvation: the address of a British tourist whose driver’s license she found on the beach in Nigeria.
All of that happens in Chapter One.
It’s hard to describe the book without turning the jaw-dropping developments into spoilers. But in a nutshell, she finds the address, and when she arrives there, the man on the driver’s license is gone. Little Bee moves in with his wife and young son, and the three of them, for a short time, form a semblance of family. We learn the details of Little Bee’s final days in Nigeria, the circumstances of her arrival in England and her detention. And then we learn something else, and I hope to the heavens you have a solid hour or two set aside when you get to that page.
In the meantime, Little Bee reveals herself to us – her resilience, her humor, the astounding pragmatism with which she views her life, and the ever-present sadness that stains who she is.
If I did meet you, she tells us, then the first thing you would have noticed would have been my eyes staring at your face, as if they were trying to see someone else in you, as if they were desperate to make you into a ghost. If we did meet, I hope you did not take this personally.
I don’t know how Chris Cleave, a pale white middle-aged man, manages to channel the voice of an adolescent black African girl, but I’ll have some of what he’s having. The intonations, the innocence, the despair – riveting, and utterly convincing.
What most struck me, though, when I had read the last page – read it again and again, by the way – is how in the current debate over illegal immigration, we have ceased to understand that at the crux of the issue are actual people. They are, in many, many cases, women, men and children fleeing debilitating poverty and oppression. It’s not that they’re dying to see Mount Rushmore; they’re simply dying.
I’m going to stereotype here – but many of the anti-immigration zealots are also believers in the American bootstrap theory: that all a person needs to succeed in this world is a little ambition and a good Protestant work ethic. If that’s you, this book might just pick you up and throw you on your ass. You know, in a good way. Because Little Bee’s story shows us that it’s not always that easy. Sometimes you can’t make lemonade with fate’s proverbial lemons. Sometimes, life is just really, really sour. And that, I think, must be very hard to swallow.