Chris Cleave, Little Bee

It’s one thing for a former imperial power to be haunted by the ghosts of its past. The same goes for anyone who has witnessed an act of brutal violence. But it’s quite another thing for those ghosts to shed their immateriality and come do their haunting in the flesh: knocking on your door in the suburbs, asking for a place to stay. That psychological confrontation is at the heart of Little Bee, the second novel by the British writer Chris Cleave.

Both kinds of ghosts, the colonized and the physically battered, are contained in Cleave’s titular hero, Little Bee, a shell-shocked Nigerian teenager who flees to London after a savage oil war destroys her village and family. She’s promptly thrown into an immigration removal centre, but after two years escapes in search of Andrew and Sarah, the married couple who happened to be on vacation in her country as the fighting broke out, and who rescued her—though not her sister—from a gang of ruthless soldiers.

But things aren’t so perfect in suburbia, either: the couple came home from Nigeria with deep emotional trauma, and after a long battle with depression, Andrew has recently hanged himself; Little Bee arrives the morning of his funeral. Meanwhile, Sarah tries desperately to keep up the appearance of normalcy for their four-year-old son, Charlie, whose sense of death is only barely congealing (and even then only in Batman-related terms).

Cleave’s story touches on many of the familiar symbols of postcolonial fiction—scars, repressed memories, a quest to regain the lost authentic—but it isn’t showy or overwrought in its depiction of the makeshift family’s struggles. His prose is plain and unadorned, but successfully so. If the sentences aren’t revelations, they are at least clearly defined pieces in a puzzle worth assembling.

Here, for instance, is Sarah in a particularly lucid moment that could double as the book’s thesis: “A memory can be banished, even indefinitely, deported from consciousness,” she thinks. “A human being, though, is a different thing entirely. The existence of a Nigerian girl, alive and standing in one’s own garden—governments may deny such things, or brush them off as statistical anomalies, but human beings cannot.”

Bond Street Books, 288 pp, $29.95, hardcover

(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, March 12, 2009)

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