5 out of 5: Little Bee is a novel about two women, one from England and one from Nigeria (named Little Bee), whose lives intersect in a chance encounter with repercussions that change the lives of both women forever. Told from alternating first-person perspectives, the story unfolds slowly, allowing the reader to discover the details along with the women. This masterful construct pulls the reader along the same emotional journey as the characters and powerfully depicts how a split-second decision can have enduring and unexpected effects.
One of those effects is Little Bee’s forced assimilation into British culture. Her unique voice, which grows into the dominating force of this novel, humanizes the plight faced by many immigrants:
I am only alive at all because I learned the Queen’s English. Maybe you are thinking, that isn’t so hard. After all, English is the official language of my country, Nigeria. Yes, but the trouble is that back home we speak it so much better than you. To talk the Queen’s English, I had to forget all the best tricks of my mother tongue. … Learning the Queen’s English is like scrubbing off the bright red varnish from your toenails, the morning after a dance. It takes a long time and there is always a little bit left at the end, a stain of red along the growing edges to remind you of the good time you had.Although there is a political message here, it never overshadows the personal stories of these finely drawn characters. Cleave’s beautiful prose, infused with subtle humor, lightens this book’s dark and haunting story, creating a perfect balance between beauty and horror, laughter and tragedy. Little Bee might be a perfect novel, and it’s certainly the best book I’ve read this year.