Thursday, May 27, 2010

Chris Cleave takes the sentimental approach to illegal immigration

Chris Cleave’s latest novel tells the story of a Nigerian girl who has made her way to England after trouble in her country has nearly destroyed her. This is a deeply felt tale of the life of the undocumented.

Little Bee

The unassuming heroine of Little Bee (271 pages, Simon and Schuster, $14) is a young Nigerian girl who has somehow made her way to a detention center north of London. As she tells the story, a friend in the center has offered some favors to the guard that has got them early release. But because they are released without “papers,” it is not exactly clear what their options are.

Litte Bee, as the girl has renamed herself, is clutching the driver’s license of a British journalist with whom she somehow crossed paths in Nigeria. She is determined to make her way to the address on the license, in Kingston-Upon-Thames, which is a long way from the detention center. But make her way there she does, and as she does we are introduced to the family to whom she will make her appeal.

Andrew and Sarah O’Rourke, and their four-year-old son Charlie, live in the suburbs. Andrew and Sarah have both worked as journalists, but when the narrative begins, Andrew has just killed himself and Sarah is desperately trying to understand what happened. Love had gone out of their marriage sometime before, but the real crisis seems to stem from a traumatic encounter they had while vacationing in Nigeria.

Tourist brochures did not make it clear that bloody battles for oil-fields were happening all over Nigeria at the time, and when Sarah and Andrew wander out of their hotel compound in order to walk on the beautiful beach, they walk right into the violence that has been brewing around them. Two girls approach them and ask to come back to the hotel with them. The hotel guard who has come to find them insists that the girls cannot go back, but before a final decision is made, the thugs who are chasing the girls emerge on the beach, and a violent encounter ensues.
Andrew and Sarah escape, but not without scars both physical and psychological; and they imagine that the girls, whom they have not been able to save, have been destroyed by the gang. Imagine Sarah’s surprise, then, when Little Bee shows up on her doorstep in Kingston on the day of Andrew’s funeral.

The two voices of the narrative—that of Little Bee and that of Sarah—between them manage to tell the whole story of the violence in Nigeria and the almost equally bleak story of Sarah and Andrew’s marriage. Before Nigeria, Sarah had begun an affair with the handsome Lawrence, whom she met at the Home Office when trying to do an interview. Lawrence is a saving grace to her, but when Andrew finds out about the affair, it destroys him. Nigeria was in fact an attempt to put their marriage back together. That attempt failed miserably.

Sarah welcomes Little Bee to what she thinks of as her broken life, and she hopes that the two might be able to help each other. At first this does seem to work. Little Bee is wonderful with Sarah’s young son Charlie, who mostly likes to imagine himself as Batman, and she seems to understand Sarah’s distress. At the same time, Sarah offers the young African girl a home and a true introduction to British life.
Unfortunately Lawrence does not see Little Bee as a good thing. After all, he does work in the Home Office, which handles questions of immigration, and she is undocumented. He worries too that she will pull Sarah away from him, and he is ready to confront the girl and turn her in to the authorities. But that is not so easy when he tries to threaten the girl. She knows what men are like—the men in her country have taught her how to be afraid—and she is ready to fight back to save herself.

The denouement is as interesting as it is powerful. These various forces in play make it look like these people are destined to destroy each other, but that is not exactly what happens. It could almost be said that they grow. Bu they grow in ways that do not necessarily conform to what we would like to think of as a happy ending.

Chris Cleave

Available at Amazon, Powell's and Vroman's.

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