Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Little Bee, published as The Other Hand in the U.K., tells the story of Sarah, an English fashion magazine editor, and Little Bee, a refugee from Nigeria, whose lives collide on a beach in Africa. Sarah, married to Andrew, a foreign affairs journalist, is bored with her upper middle class life, bored with her husband,  and feels guilty about the affair she has been having with Lawrence, a civil servant hack from the Home Office. So Sarah proposes an exotic vacation to Nigeria, a completely arbitrary choice made mostly because she received free tickets to go there and because she fancies herself as someone who does daring and different things while on vacation.
A quick Google search finds the October 19, 2010 U.S. State Department travel alert advising that non-essential travel to Nigeria is not recommended:  "Violent crime committed by individuals and gangs, as well as by persons wearing police and military uniforms, remains a problem throughout the country." However, Sarah did not "Google" Nigeria and seems unaware of the dangers; she thinks a trip will heal her marriage. The pivotal event of the book occurs when Sarah and her husband have ventured out of the safe hotel compound to the beach where they encounter soldiers searching for two girls who have witnessed atrocities related to the destruction of their family and home because there is oil beneath the ground of their village. The reader learns that violence and corruption arising from the oil-based economy have plagued the country , even though officially Nigeria is regarded as a relatively democratic and thriving African nation.
The soldiers on the beach demand that Andrew cut off a finger with their machete in order to save the girls. What would you do? Andrew declines the bargain, Sarah chops off her own finger and the soldiers march  off with the girls anyway. Two years later, the younger sister, Little Bee, shows up at Andrew and Sarah's home outside London.
The story is told in the alternating voice of Little Bee and Sarah and the truth, or details, of that day on the beach is gradually revealed, as is the story of the two horrifying years Little Bee spent in a British detention center for refugees. The reader learns about the awful conditions in these centers filled with desperate people suffering from post-traumatic shock.
The story of Little Bee sets up so many moral dilemmas that exist in the relationship between wealthy countries and the developing world and how those moral choices can play out between individuals that this book is a very good choice for a reading group to discuss.
To learn more about the problems caused by oil drilling in Nigeria, author Chris Cleave's website  links to sites that show the human and ecological cost of oil exploration. Cleave recommends the website, The Global Detention Project for further study of the plight of international refugees.
Despite its serious subject matter, the book Little Bee does not take a scolding, moralistic tone and there is humor in the irony of the situations the characters find themselves in.

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