Cleave follows up his outstanding debut (Incendiary, 2005) with a psychologically charged story of grief, globalization and an unlikely friendship.
The story opens in a refugee detention center outside of London. As the Nigerian narrator—who got her nickname “Little Bee” as a child—prepares to leave the center, she thinks of her homeland and recalls a horrific memory. “In the immigration detention center, they told us we must be disciplined,” she says. “This is the discipline I learned: whenever I go into a new place, I work out how I would kill myself there. In case the men come suddenly, I make sure I am ready.” After Little Bee’s release, the first-person narration switches to Sarah, a magazine editor in London struggling to come to terms with her husband Andrew’s recent suicide, as well as the stubborn behavior of her four-year-old son, Charlie, who refuses to take off his Batman costume. While negotiating her family troubles, Sarah reflects on “the long summer when Little Bee came to live with us.” Cleave alternates the viewpoints of the two women, patiently revealing the connection between them. A few years prior, Sarah and Andrew took a vacation to the Nigerian coast, not realizing the full extent to which the oil craze had torn the country apart. One night they stumble upon Little Bee and her sister, who are fleeing a group of rapacious soldiers prowling the beach. The frightening confrontation proves life-changing for everyone involved, though in ways they couldn’t have imagined. A few years later Sarah and Little Bee come together again in the suburbs of London, and their friendship—in addition to that between Little Bee and Charlie—provides some salvation for each woman. Though less piercing and urgent than his debut, Cleave’s narrative pulses with portentous, nearly spectral energy, and the author maintains a well-modulated balance between the two narrators.
A solid sophomore effort, and hopefully a sign of even better things to come.