Joburg Expat: Africa Bookshelf: Little Bee

September 25, 2014

Africa Bookshelf: Little Bee

Creating an “Africa bookshelf” was one of the first things I did when starting my blog back in 2010. Leading up to and throughout our expat assignment in Johannesburg, I took great joy in learning more about this continent I knew so little about, by way of the works of some great storytellers. Among the highlights I count Twenty Chickens for a Saddle (Botswana), Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa (Rhodesia/Zimbabwe), and the two South Africa classics Cry the Beloved Country and The Power of One. And, in the travel literature department, Dark Star Safari (a cross-section of Africa).

My Africa bookshelf. Spilled onto the floor. Wish the pile was 3 times bigger!

Unfortunately my Africa reading has slowed down considerably since moving away, which is why I was particularly pleased to have Little Bee fall into my lap, quite unexpectedly, by stumbling across it at the library. (The library, by the way, is one of the joys of having moved back to the United States. I do NOT miss the library in Johannesburg.)

The setting of Little Bee is mostly England, but the narrator is a Nigerian girl, who in several flashbacks takes you back to her childhood in Nigeria as she tells her harrowing story. Despite of this, I wouldn’t necessarily call this book harrowing. There are flashes of humor in it, the characters are exquisitely drawn, and despite everything that happens, there is a hopeful note in it, one of survival and love and sacrifice.

Little Bee, the girl, starts her narrative in a bleak immigration detention center somewhere in England, just as she is about to be let out of there in what turns out to be a mistake by the authorities. Aware of her illegal status, she turns to the only people she knows in all of England, and through what unfolds from there we find out how she is linked to that family by a hair-raising incident that happened in their past. The author does an excellent job of feeding us bits and pieces of that story, alternating past and present and throwing in new twists along the way.

I like how the story is alternately told by Little Bee and Sarah, the English woman whose life becomes more and more entangled with Little Bee’s and whose son, Charlie, is what ultimately binds the two together. Sarah’s voice is just as strong as Little Bee’s, and even though she’s led a rather privileged and comfortable life, she has her own demons and memories to battle with. How they overlap with the Nigerian part of the narrative is revealed in a superb piece of storytelling.

I was drawn into the story from the very first page.
“Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl,” 
begins the book.
“A pound coin can go wherever it thinks it will be safest. It can cross deserts and oceans and leave the sound of gunfire and the bitter smell of burning thatch behind. When it feels warm and secure it will turn around and smile at you, the way my big sister Nkiruka used to smile at the men in our village in the short summer after she was a girl but before she was really a woman, and certainly before the evening my mother took her to a quiet place for a serious talk.” 
In this brief description, we get a big dose of foreshadowing, or rather flashback, about the narrator’s prior life. We can sense the danger, especially to girls who are just turning into women, and we can foresee some form of tragedy concerning Little Bee’s sister Nkiruka.

One of my favorite recurring phrases is when Little Bee begins a sentence with
If I was telling this story to the girls from my village back home…” 
Invariably, this brings out some cultural chasm between rural Africa and the Western world, like when she tries to explain modern kitchen appliances, or why some Western women let themselves be pictured naked on magazine covers. There are many such comparisons and invariably they bring a smile to your face, even though the story overall is not a happy one.

Another line that stayed with me long until after I finished the book was this one:
“We must see all 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.” 
Again, appearing early in the book, this contains a large clue about just how dark and haunted Little Bee’s past must be, but it also gives a hint as to her character’s strength and will to survive.

All in all, a gem of a book, one of my favorite reads this year.

Check out the Afrika Bookshelf for my entire list of Africa book recommendations.