Little Bee, by Chris Cleave, is a novel that explores both the frailty of the human condition and the endurance of the human spirit. It delves into unthinkable evil, but simultaneously celebrates its characters in their ability to transcend all that weighs them down, including their pasts, their secrets, and their flaws. The book is about the bond formed between two women and how the relationship that has arisen from the most tragic of circumstances functions to resurrect both of them. For the character of Little Bee, identity is inescapably tied to ethnicity, nationality, gender, race, and class. She is hampered by the weight of her past; yet she also rises above these distinctions in her continued hopefulness, as evidenced in her dreams and active imagination.
A representative passage of the book that explores Little Bees point of view (both its unceasing optimism and stark realism) occurs in the books final chapter. Little Bee is on the beach, awaking from a dream. The dream was of her ideal life going forward: Living in a beautiful home in her native Nigeria, working as a journalist who collects stories like her own, Sarah and Charlie with her as family. Little Bee is peaceful, thinking about the noise that has awoken her and, by extension, her place in the world. After the passage are the last few pages of the novel, in which Little Bee separates from Sarah and Charlie because the armed men (presumably soldiers) are searching for her. Ultimately Little Bee, prompted by the men shooting at Charlie, sacrifices herself by revealing her identity to them.
The passage is ominous. Structurally, the reader is aware by this point that they are mere pages away from the end of the story. The pages prior have seen several good developments after the turn of Little Bees deportation to Nigeria. Sarah and Charlie have returned with her and they are setting about collecting stories from other native people in order to expose the truths of the oil companies cruelty to the world. They are relaxing in the sun, on the beach near where Little Bees sister Nkiruka was killed. Little Bee is awoken from a good dream, but immediately the reader gets the sense that something bad is about to happen. This comes as a result of the first sentence of the passage, There is a moment when you wake up from dreaming in the hot sun, a moment outside time when you do not know what you are (Cleave 258). The sentence shows that Little Bee is questioning her identity at just the moment when she should be most sure of it. Because Little Bee has been seeking a home, a family, and belonging, and has seemingly found it, the reader realizes that it is still uncertain.
It is significant to point out that the reader knows that the thesis of the book is that it is a sad story. We are told early on, Sad words are just another beauty. A sad story means, this storyteller is alive (Cleave 9). Thus we know that the story can not have a happy ending, but nor is the ending ultimately tragic. It is clear that Little Bee has survived merely in the telling of the story, but also that something bad will happen to her in the end. So the passage on the beach is situated at the exact moment between Little Bee at her happiest and the awful events that will make this a sad story.
The book as alternates between the points of view of Sarah and Little Bee, though this section is told in Little Bees voice. It is critical that the final chapter be her perspective, given that the so much of the book deals with the lack of western knowledge of people like Little Bee, the silence regarding their stories, and the healing power of storytelling. The most significant element of voice in this passage is the tonal shift between its two paragraphs. In the first paragraph, Little Bee is coming out of her dream and the narration is reminiscent of that half-awake state. The second paragraph is Little Bee, eyes open, in the fog of remembering who and where she is, when she says, a white woman was sitting next to me on the beach in the thing called shade (Cleave 259). This paragraph also hints at the return of Little Bees Africanness in its wording. The implication is that shade, a relatively simple word with her advanced level of English, is again foreign to her. Then she says, regarding Sarah, I searched for the name of her expression in your language frightened, again struggling for easy language. Given that in the previous paragraph she has discussed transformation at length, it is as if the reader is seeing Little Bee regress to the self she was before England and Sarahs influence.
Another important element of voice is the use of the second person point of view in the first paragraph. This technique is also used throughout the book, as filtered through Little Bee. The second person is an affecting way of getting the reader to empathize with its speaker. While Little Bee’s circumstances may be hard for many readers (particularly the audience that might have access and motivation to read the novel) to understand, the second person forces the reader to imagine herself in her stead. The use of second person as a tool ties in with one of the central themes of the book: what it takes for one person to understand the plight of another. This theme is evident at many points: Sarah and Andrew choose to vacation in Nigeria despite its war; Andrew refuses to cut off his finger though it may mean the girls will die; Sarah dismisses Andrew’s depression. Thus when Little Bee realizes ‘you are a creature with skin’ she is realizing it not only for herself, but for all the readers (Cleave 259). Being human, they are subject to all the same agonies and ecstasies that she is and are similarly mortal.
The passage explores the idea of identity, specifically who one is in relationship to the world and how one knows she is human. The idea is reinforced through the use of several extended metaphors. Repetition of these metaphors gives them heft. The first is ‘you must be money’ (Cleave 258). This alludes to the previous section, in which she says that the noise that woke her up is ‘the sound of the surf pounding on the beach’Crash, like the drawer of a cash register springing open and all the coins inside it smashing against the edge of their compartments’ (Cleave 258). That the ‘you’ character is money is ironic, given that prior the reader is told ‘you feel absolutely free’ (Cleave 258). Money in the book represents evil. It is the main motivation for the oil companies that have corrupted Nigeria and divided its people. Additionally, Sarah’s finger is taken as a kind of payment for Little Bee’s life and as such, she is resentful of her own commodification.
Next Little Bee compares herself to environmental elements of the beach itself. The beach represents the very best and worst parts of Little Bee’s life: It is where her sister was murdered, but also where she met Sarah and Andrew. In the moment of the passage, it is where she is relaxing and dreaming of a better life, but also where she is about to be recaptured. Cleave writes that Little Bee is ‘that hot breeze,’ (258) but even as breeze she is burdened, as he describes ‘the heaviness you feel in your limbs is the weight of the salt in the wind and the sweet sleepiness that bewitches you is simply the weariness that comes from the day-and-night pushing of waves across the ocean’ (259). It is as ironic as the monetary comparison: Just as we consider money to be the opposite of free, so is breeze the opposite of heavy.
The passage tells us that identity is mutable, at least in one’s own imagination. Just as Little Bee has made herself English, she can be African again. She can imagine herself as free as the breeze or as inconsequential as a grain of sand. In the mind, it is ‘as if you could transform yourself into anything at all’ (Cleave 258). After she is the breeze, she is ‘the sand that the breeze blows up the beach, just one grain of sand among the billions of blown grains’ (Cleave 259). Again she is a natural element of the beach, but this time one that is ‘inconsequential’ and one that can ‘simply to go back to sleep, as the sand does, until the wind thinks to awaken it again’ (Cleave 259). With this comparison, Cleave is exploring Little Bee’s as an entity that is not burdened (as the wind is) by responsibility, but instead is burdened by others acting upon her. This parallels with Little Bee’s tragedy, as she had no agency over her own fate or that of her village, or any ability to protect her sister.
Next Little Bee realizes her own corporeal presence and its inherent mortality. She says, ‘this skin is your own’ and ‘a billion fishes have slipped away like this, flapping on the blinding white sand, and what difference will one more make?’ (Cleave 259). Just as she has realized her inability to control her own destiny, she is realizing her insignificance. This is all the more noteworthy as next she realizes, ‘I am a girl, then, an African girl’ (Cleave 259). She is subject to the oppression that her gender and her nationality carry with them. As a girl, she has less power than a man, and men in this novel are agents of destruction. The reader is told this earlier in the story when Little Bee says, ‘The men came and they…That was how all of our stories started’ (Cleave 79). Her Africanness, as well, leaves her open to danger, as Sarah can return to England and be guaranteed safety but she can not. This realization does not leave Little Bee so much depressed as resigned. She will stay herself, ‘as the shape-changing magic of dreams whispers back into the roar of the ocean’ (Cleave 259). It is a foreshadowing of her final decision. She does not choose to flee or fight, but instead to surrender herself for the sake of Charlie, because he is young and will continue the dream for her.
The reader takes from Little Bee the idea that identity is fluid and one’s own self-perception can be a tool of transcendence. Little Bee’s circumstances require that she reinvents herself from village girl, to refugee, to member of an upper-class British family. Because of her brain, her language, and her imagination, she cannot be marginalized, even though she must succumb to evil. To the reader, Little Bee will remain as free as the wind and as peaceful as the undisturbed sand, because she has offered her voice and her story as testimony.
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