Sunday, November 14, 2010

Little Bee

"... a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must all see scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived."

I think that I am generally a curious person. I like to know what's going on and why, and I dig for answers when I have questions. While browsing in the bookstore this week, I picked up the book Little Bee, written by Chris Cleave. The summary wasn't so much of a summary, as an enticing invitation to curious people like me. It stated "We don' want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it." How could I not read it? Little Bee is a very special book indeed. With one of the most vividly memorable and provocative character, this novel is profound, deeply moving and yet light in touch, it explores the nature of loss, hope, love and identity with atrocity its backdrop. Cleave unfurls a haunting work of human triumph and the perils of globalization where girls like Little Bee are just silhouettes, expendable products in a world that is shifting and changing.

Some 50 years ago, the region near Nigeria’s Atlantic coast provided the setting for Chinua Achebe’s haunting novel of a world torn asunder by the vicissitudes of Anglo-imperial expansion. To capture the tragedy of colonialism in that account, “Things Fall Apart,” Achebe looked to Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” for inspiration: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

The drowning of innocence and the anarchic consequences of the global reach are hardly confined to Achebe’s Nigeria of yesteryear or to the colonial underbelly of Britain’s “civilizing” mission. The story of globalization is a centuries-old account of historical interconnections shaped by exploitation, despair and, at times, moral conscience and optimism. Chris Cleave, a columnist for The Guardian, puts a modern-day spin on Achebe’s concerns with his immensely readable and moving second novel.

While the pretext of Little Bee initially seems contrived — two strangers, a British woman and a Nigerian girl, meet on a lonely African beach and become inextricably bound through the horror imprinted on their encounter — its impact is hardly shallow. Rather than focusing on post-colonial guilt or African angst, Cleave uses his emotionally charged narrative to challenge his readers’ conceptions of civility, of ethical choice.

Sarah O’Rourke might appear to be an insipid character, with her career at a British magazine, her Batman-costumed young son, her uninspiring lover and her gentrified Surrey lifestyle. When juxtaposed with the Nigerian refugee called Little Bee — whom we first meet behind the razor wire of a British immigration center — Sarah is unsympathetic, even tiresome. But that impression changes partway through the novel when a flashback to Africa reveals her fortitude. There, it is Sarah, rather than her husband, Andrew, who gallantly comes to Little Bee’s rescue. Sarah must also pick up the pieces after Andrew’s descent from third-world cowardice into first-world madness.

Yet the character and voice of Little Bee reveal Cleave at his finest. As she navigates the dehumanizing indifference of immigration detention with her self-taught Queen’s English, this young refugee tugs at the reader’s conscience. For two years, she has avoided the “ravenous eyes” of the camp’s men with her purposefully mismatched charity-box clothes, unwashed skin and bound breasts. Eventually, she turns up, illegally, at the O’Rourkes’ home in Kingston-upon-Thames. In the weeks that follow, the lives of Little Bee and Sarah will be woven into a web in which disparate worlds can be connected in the unlikeliest fashion.

The tide of that event carries Little Bee back to their world, which she claims she couldn't explain to the girls from her village because they'd have no context for its abundance and calm. But she shows us the infinite rifts in a globalized world, where any distance can be crossed in a day--with the right papers--and "no one likes each other, but everyone likes U2." Where you have to give up the safety you'd assumed as your birthright if you decide to save the girl gazing at you through razor wire, left to the wolves of a failing state.

London, with its dizzying abundance and multiculturalism, looks like a parallel universe when compared with the impoverished Nigerian village where Little Bee grew up. Surely the locals would chide, “Little miss been-to is making up her tales again,” were she ever to return to what remains of her birthplace. Yet it’s this same village that instilled in her the skills and values needed to help her navigate toward her own scarred survival.

Like Little Bee, Sarah is a survivor. But the lessons of the past are not enough to steer either woman to safety. Instead, in a world full of turpitude and injustice, it is their bold, impulsive choices that challenge the inevitability of despair, transforming a political novel into an affecting story of human triumph.

In the first few pages I fell in love with Cleaves vast narrative and storytelling abilities. The images that he created for me were so detailed and complete. "So, I am a refugee, and I get lonely. Is it my fault if I do not look like an English girl and I do not talk like a Nigerian? well, who says an English girl must have skin as pale as the clouds that flout across her summers? Who says a Nigerian girl must speak in fallen English, as if English had collided with Ibo, high in the upper atmosphere, and rained down into her mouth in a shower that half drowns her and leaves her choking up sweet tales about the bright African colors and the taste of fried plantain? Not like a storyteller, but like a victim rescued from the flood, coughing up the colonial water from her lungs?"

This novels greatest strength is the squeamishly raw candor of its protagonist, Little Bee. Every now and then, you come across a character in a book whose personality is so salient, and whose story carries such devastating emotional force, it’s as if she becomes a fixed part of your consciousness. Besides sharp, witty dialogue, an emotionally charged plot and the vivid characters’ ethical struggles, Little Bee delivers a timely challenge to reinvigorate our notions of civilized decency.

Cleave masterfully veers quickly between humor and horror, a very dark, biting humor to be sure, but usually skating along a thin blade of irony, the kind to make you laugh with a little grimace. "I think my ideal man would speak many languages... He could speak with any person, even the soldiers, and if there was violence in their heart he could change it. He would not have to fight, do you see? Maybe he would not be handsome, but would be beautiful when he spoke. He would be very kind, even if you burned his food because you were laughing and talking with your girlfriends instead of watching the cooking. He would just say, Ah, never mind... Forgive me, but your ideal man, he don't sound very rill-istic." "It was a song called We Are The Champions by a British music band called Queen... One time he showed me a picture of the band... One of the musicians in the picture, he had a lot of hair. It was black with tight curls and it sat on the top of his head like a heavy weight and it went right down the back of his neck to his shoulders. I understands fashion in your language, but this hair did not look like fashion... It looked like a punishment."

Again, I am amazed at the connections between books. "He'd been awake all night writing an opinion piece about the middle east, which was a region he had never visited and had no specialist knowledge of. It was the summer of 2007, and my son was fighting Penguin and the Puffin, and my country was fighting Iraq and Afghanistan, and my Husband was forming public opinion. It was the kind of summer where no one took their costume off." Having read Three Cups of Tea, and Infidel, it's so interesting to see the different views on the same subject, in this case, the war with the Middle East.

Sequined with lustrous turns of phrase, spanning two continents and driven by real-life global concerns, what elevates this novel even further is Cleave’s forceful call for all of us, the floating masses of a globalized, socially isolating modern world, to look after one other.

No comments:

Post a Comment