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Little Bee (Cleave)

Little Bee 
Chris Cleave, 2008
Simon & Schuster
288 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781416593836

Summary
Little Bee, a young Nigerian refugee, has just been released from the British immigration detention center where she has been held under horrific conditions for the past two years, after narrowly escaping a traumatic fate in her homeland of Nigeria. Alone in a foreign country, without a family member, friend, or pound to call her own, she seeks out the only English person she knows. Sarah is a posh young mother and magazine editor with whom Little Bee shares a dark and tumultuous past.

They first met on a beach in Nigeria, where Sarah was vacationing with her husband, Andrew, in an effort to save their marriage after an affair, and their brief encounter has haunted each woman for two years. Now together, they face a disturbing past and an uncertain future with the help of Sarah's four-year-old son, Charlie, who refuses to take off his Batman costume. A sense of humor and an unflinching moral compass allow each woman, and the reader, to believe that even in the face of unspeakable odds, humanity can prevail. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—1973
Where—London, England, UK
Where—raised in both Buckinghamsire (UK) and Cameroon
Education—Oxford University
Awards—Somerset Maugh Award; Prix des Lecteurs
Currently—lives in London

Chris Cleave is a columnist for the Guardian newspaper in London. His first novel, Incendiary, was published in twenty countries; won the 2006 Somerset Maugham Award; was shortlisted for the 2006 Commonwealth Writers' Prize; won the United States Book-of-the-Month Club's First Fiction Award; and won the Prix Special du Jury at the French Prix des Lecteurs 2007.

His second novel, Little Bee, was shortlisted for the prestigious Costa Award for Best Novel. His third, Gold, was published in 2012. He lives in London with his French wife and three mischievous Anglo-French children. He keeps his website at www.chriscleave.com (From the publisher and Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews 
Immensely readable and moving.... While the pretext of Little Bee initially seems contrived—two strangers, a British woman and a Nigerian girl, meet on a lonely African beach and become inextricably bound through the horror imprinted on their encounter—its impact is hardly shallow. Rather than focusing on postcolonial guilt or African angst, Cleave uses his emotionally charged narrative to challenge his readers' conceptions of civility, of ethical choice.
Caroline Elkins - New York Times


Little Bee will blow you away.... [Cleave] has carved two indelible characters whose choices in even the most straitened circumstances permit them dignity—if they are willing to sacrifice for it. Little Bee is the best kind of political novel: You're almost entirely unaware of its politics because the book doesn't deal in abstractions but in human beings.
Sarah L. Courteau - Washington Post


Utterly enthralling page-turner...... Novelist Cleave does a brilliant job of making both characters not only believable but memorable.... These compelling voices grip the reader's heart and do not let go even after the book's hyper-tense final page. Little Bee is a harrowing and heartening marvel of a novel
Seattle Post-Intelligencer


Every now and then, you come across a character in a book whose personality is so salient and whose story carries such devastating emotional force it's as if she becomes a fixed part of your consciousness. So it is with the charmingly named title character in Chris Cleave's brilliant and unforgettable Little Bee.
Oregonian


The voice that speaks from the first page of Chris Cleave's Little Bee is one you might never have heard—the voice of a smart, wary, heartsick immigrant scarred by the terrors of her past.... Read this urgent and wryly funny novel for its insights into simple humanity, the force that can disarm fear
O Magazine


A violent incident on a Nigerian beach has tragic echoes in posh London in Cleave's beautifully staged if haphazardly plotted second novel. British couple Andrew O'Rourke and his wife, Sarah, are on vacation when they come across two sisters, Little Bee and Nkiruka, on the run from the killers who have massacred everyone else in their village—and what happens there with this unlikely encounter, is the mystery that propels the novel. Two years later, Little Bee, in possession of Andrew's license, shows up at Sarah's house to learn that it is the day of Andrew's funeral. He's committed suicide. Sarah is determined to help Little Bee get refugee status despite Little Bee's later revelation concerning Andrew's death. Cleave (Incendiary) has a sharp cinematic eye, and humanizes disturbing issues around refugees and the situation in Africa, but the story is undermined by weak motivations and coincidences.
Publishers Weekly


Book clubs in search of the next Kite Runner need look no further than this astonishing, flawless novel about what happens when ordinary, mundane Western lives are thrown into stark contrast against the terrifying realities of war-torn Africa. Their marriage in crisis, Andrew and Sarah O'Rourke impulsively accept a junket to a Nigerian beach resort as a last-ditch attempt to reconcile. When machete-wielding soldiers appear out of the jungle and force them to determine the fate of two African girls, everyone's lives are irrevocably shattered. Two years later in a London suburb, one of the girls, now a refugee, reconnects with Sarah. Together they face wrenching tests of a friendship forged under extreme duress. Best-selling author Cleave (Incendiary) effortlessly moves between alternating viewpoints with lucid, poignant prose and the occasional lighter note. A tension-filled dramatic ending and plenty of moral dilemmas add up to a satisfying, emotional read. Highly recommended for all libraries and book clubs.
Library Journal


(Starred review.) Little Bee, smart and stoic, knows two people in England, Andrew and Sarah, journalists she chanced upon on a Nigerian beach after fleeing a massacre in her village.... After sneaking into England...she arrives at Andrew and Sarah’s London suburb home only to find that the violence that haunts her has also poisoned them. Cleave is a nerves-of-steel storyteller of stealthy power, and this is a novel as resplendent and menacing as life itself. — Donna Seaman
Booklist


Cleave follows up his outstanding debut (Incendiary, 2005) with a psychologically charged story of grief, globalization and an unlikely friendship. The story opens in a refugee detention center outside of London. As the Nigerian narrator-who got her nickname "Little Bee" as a child-prepares to leave the center, she thinks of her homeland and recalls a horrific memory. "In the immigration detention center, they told us we must be disciplined," she says. "This is the discipline I learned: whenever I go into a new place, I work out how I would kill myself there. In case the men come suddenly, I make sure I am ready." After Little Bee's release, the first-person narration switches to Sarah, a magazine editor in London struggling to come to terms with her husband Andrew's recent suicide, as well as the stubborn behavior of her four-year-old son, Charlie, who refuses to take off his Batman costume. While negotiating her family troubles, Sarah reflects on "the long summer when Little Bee came to live with us." Cleave alternates the viewpoints of the two women, patiently revealing the connection between them. A few years prior, Sarah and Andrew took a vacation to the Nigerian coast, not realizing the full extent to which the oil craze had torn the country apart. One night they stumble upon Little Bee and her sister, who are fleeing a group of rapacious soldiers prowling the beach. The frightening confrontation proves life-changing for everyone involved, though in ways they couldn't have imagined. A few years later Sarah and Little Bee come together again in the suburbs of London, and their friendship—in addition to that between Little Bee and Charlie—provides some salvation for each woman. Thoughless piercing and urgent than his debut, Cleave's narrative pulses with portentous, nearly spectral energy, and the author maintains a well-modulated balance between the two narrators. A solid sophomore effort, and hopefully a sign of even better things to come.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. "Sad words are just another beauty. A sad story means, this storyteller is alive" (p. 9). For Little Bee and other asylum seekers, the story of their life thus far is often all they have. What happens to the characters that carrytheir stories with them, both physically and mentally? What happens when we try to forget our past? How much control over their own stories do the characters in the book seem to have?

2. Little Bee tells the reader, "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" (p. 9). Which characters in the story are left with physical scars? Emotional scars? Do they embrace them as beautiful? Do you have any scars you've come to embrace? Did you feel more connected to Little Bee as a narrator after this pact?

3. Little Bee strives to learn the Queen's English in order to survive in the detention center. How does her grasp of the language compare with Charlie's? How does the way each of these two characters handle the English language help to characterize them?

4. How did it affect your reading experience to have two narrators? Did you trust one woman more than the other? Did you prefer the voice of one above the other?

5. Little Bee credits a small bottle of nail polish for "saving her life" while she was in the detention center (p. 7). Is there any object or act that helps you feel alive and beautiful, even when everything else seems to be falling apart?

6. Of the English language Little Bee says, "Every word can defend itself. Just when you go to grab it, it can split into two separate meanings so the understanding closes on empty air" (p. 12). What do you think she means by this? Can you think of any examples of English words that defend themselves? Why is language so important to Little Bee?

7. Little Bee says of horror films, "Horror in your country is something you take a dose of to remind yourself that you are not suffering from it" (p. 45). Do you agree? Was reading this novel in any way a dose of horror for you? How did it help you reflect on the presence or lack of horror in your own life?

8. Little Bee figures out the best way to kill herself in any given situation, just in case "the men come suddenly." How do these plans help Little Bee reclaim some power? Were you disturbed by this, or were you able to find the humor in some of the scenarios she imagines?

9. What does Udo changing her name to Little Bee symbolize for you? How does her new name offer her protection? Do you think the name suits her?

10. "To have an affair, I began to realize, was a relatively minor transgression. But to really escape from Andrew, to really become myself, I had to go the whole way and fall in love" (p. 161-162). Do you agree with Sarah that an affair is a minor transgression? How did falling in love with someone else help Sarah become herself? What role did Andrew play in perpetuating Sarah's extramarital affair?

11. When Little Bee finds that Andrew has hanged himself she thinks, "Of course I must save him, whatever it costs me, because he is a human being." And then she thinks, "Of course I must save myself, because I am a human being too" (p. 194). How do the characters in the story decide when to put themselves first and when to offer charity? Is one human life ever more valuable than another? What if one of the lives in question is your own?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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