“Little Bee” is the name chosen for herself by a young Nigerian girl running from “the men” who have come to burn her village and kill its occupants, so that the oil field below may be developed. She takes the name to hide her identity, as her real name would clearly identify her as a member of a particular family, all of whom are supposed to be dead. Little Bee has lived a happy life in an impoverished village, where there is no running water or electricity, but there is a tire swing and a lot of fun to be had. When the village is destroyed by the men, she and her sister are able to escape, hiding in the jungle and finding themselves on a beach near a tourist resort.
Sarah and Andrew O’Rourke are a British couple vacationing in that same resort, and decide to take a walk on the beach, outside of the safety of the compound. There they meet Little Bee and her sister, and the events that unfold change each of their lives in horrific ways that seem unimaginable to a couple that lives in the safety of a first world suburb, or to a teenager from an isolated third world village.
Chris Cleave tells the stories of Little Bee and Sarah O’Rourke in alternating chapters, beginning with Little Bee’s release from the detention center outside of London in which she has been held for the past 2 years, and the suicide of Sarah’s husband, Andrew. The writing is pitch perfect, and the characters are real and human and each trying in her own way to recover from the encounter on the beach in Nigeria. They are seeking peace, but as Little Bee says so eloquently, “…when I say that I am a refugee, you must understand that there is no refuge.”
Little Bee was an entirely engrossing story, and well deserves the praise it has received. I’m not sure why the name was changed from The Other Hand for the U.S. release, or why the cutesie admonishment on the back cover about not telling others what happens, as “the magic is in how the story unfolds”. Isn’t that true for most books? Do they expect us to be that stupid, “Oh, that book, isn’t that the one where it turns out on the last page that the husband was really the uncle of the brother?” I highly recommend it.