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Life-affirming message of 'Little Bee' trumps brutal scenes

“Little Bee” (Simon & Schuster, 2008), a novel by Chris Cleave, is a terrific book. That is what I think about the book – what I feel about it is much more complex.

Little Bee, the name of the main character in this wonderful story, is a 16-year-old Nigerian orphan who at the start of the book is being released from a refugee detention center in London. Because Little Bee has no friends or family in London, she seeks out the only two people she knows – the well-to-do Sarah and Andrew O’Rourke – who crossed Little Bee’s path in a very memorable way two years earlier when the O’Rourke’s were in Nigeria on vacation. Andrew has committed suicide recently, but Sarah, a magazine editor, agrees to let Little Bee live with her and her young son, Charlie, while Sarah and her lover, Lawrence, figure out what to do with their relationship and their lives.

Cleave has created many remarkable characters. The best is Little Bee herself, a young woman with a truly fresh perspective on the world.

“Most days I wish I was a British pound coin,” the book begins. “Maybe I would visit with you for the weekend and then suddenly, because I am fickle like that, I would visit with the man from the corner shop instead. … A pound coin can go wherever it thinks it will be safest.”

Cleave is gifted at both crafting a completely believable female character and describing how this fictional girl interprets life in a unique way during her time in a foreign country.

All the characters in “Little Bee” are attempting to find their identities, figure out how they should live their lives and determine how much they should help other people who cross their paths. Little Bee, of course, has the greatest struggle as she tries to understand the reasons behind the horrors that she and her sister experienced in Nigeria, and where in the world she now belongs. Sarah, too, struggles to find herself now that her husband is dead and her career and relationships no longer fit who she really is. And Sarah’s son, Charlie, copes with the loss of his father by refusing to remove his Superman costume.

There are horrifically brutal scenes that may shock, but these are important passages that will force readers to think about the comfort and security of their own lives and about how they would respond to the challenges Little Bee, Sarah and Andrew face.

How do I feel about the book? It was rich and worthwhile, provoking a number of questions that I pondered while reading. The ending is especially moving and affirms the value of helping others.

“Little Bee” is a good selection for book clubs, and the book includes discussion questions at the end.

Leslie Ashmore, a longtime Mountain View resident, is an avid reader who belongs to two book clubs.

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