Some readers stay away from sad endings. As my husband says, there's so much sadness in real life, why go looking for it in fiction? True, I cannot argue with that. We all get a taste or more of the tragic in our pilgrimage. But then a novel as well-crafted as Chris Cleave's Little Bee comes along, and I not only swallow sad, I lap it up like honey.
The book was a Christmas gift, and, fellow readers, you know I love free. That's why the gentle warning of my friend that the book was kind of sad didn't deter me. I simply had nothing else to read at the time. (Apparently, this problem disappears once one gets a Kindle--there's always something seemingly better on the virtual shelf.) Later, midway through Cleave's story, I was grateful that I was so hungry for a story that I took a chance. An orphaned teenager calling herself Little Bee has escaped Nigeria and is being detained in in a English refugee center. She is trying to get to the home of a British couple she met two years ago while they were on an ill-fated holiday in her country. Told in alternating voices, the narrative crackles with the contrast between Little Bee's determined humor and British wife and mother Sarah's baffled bravery. Right from the beginning, there is tremendous charm to the story. (Unexpected charm, the reader rejoices, if she was forewarned about the book's sadness.) Witness the friendship between Little Bee and Sarah's son, a Batman-dressed moppet who provides a nice dash of four year old farce. Read Little Bee's spot-on humorous deconstruction of those Brits and, in a larger sense, the civilization of convenience and calm we take for granted. The contrast between these two worlds, close geographically with differing brutality, is at the heart of the novel. Little Bee hungers desperately for Sarah's world, and Sarah is equally wounded by hers.
Thankfully, with contrast comes comparison. We're all more alike than different, Cleave seems to be saying. A white woman in England can mean the world to a black African girl, and she can return the favor. Everyone, no matter where he or she lives, is capable of change and acceptance. The author makes no secret he is personalizing the term "globalization." His meaning encompasses someone like Little Bee finding her way to your front door and asking for kindness.
I am so glad I read this sad book. The charm and little bits of joy peppering its pages far outweighed any gloom. The characters of Little Bee and Sarah are entrenched in my brain now, and when I think of them, it is not with sadness but with joy.