Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What's in a Name?

At age 14 Little Bee flees her home village in Nigeria. She ends up as a stowaway on a freighter taking tea to England. Discovered en route, she is turned over to the authorities upon arrival and sent to the Black Hill Immigration Removal Centre. After two years there she is suddenly inexplicably released but without the necessary papers. What to do, where to go? Among her very few possessions are the business card and driver’s license of Andrew O’Rourke, an English journalist. Little Bee had met Andrew and his wife Sarah when Andrew and Sarah were on vacation in Nigeria. They are the only people she knows in this new country so she sets out to find them...and she does. This is the beginning of Little Bee by Chris Cleave.

The rest of this novel is told by Little Bee and Sarah in alternating chapters. We learn why Andrew and Sarah went to such an unlikely place for vacation; how they met Little Bee; how she came to have his driver’s license; and how they react to her re-entry into their lives. It’s a grim story – not the best choice for reading on Christmas Eve but I didn’t know that when I started. There is probably no “good” time to think about asylum, refugees, emigration, immigration, detention, deportation.

Another important character is Charlie, the four-year-old son of Andrew and Sarah. Charlie absolutely refuses to wear anything sleeping or waking (except at bath time) other than his Batman costume complete with mask, belt and cape. Sarah finally resorts to getting a second one so that at least she can get out the sweat and grass stains. Life for Charlie is framed in terms of goodies and baddies: you’re either one or the other. For the rest of us it is not quite so simple.

Little Bee herself may have framed the central question of this novel: “But please, what does it mean?” I said. “What does it mean, to belong here?”

At the end of the book, Little Bee finds beauty and joy. I’m not so sure that I did.

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