The novel ends at a pretty climactic moment in the lives of Little Bee, Sarah, and Charlie. They are all in danger of being arrested, harmed, or killed by the police on the Nigerian beach, where Little Bee is trying to say good-bye to the memory of her murdered sister. The novel ends with a policeman's hand on Little Bee's shoulder. Talk about leaving us in the lurch. Our blood pressure can hardly return to normal, Mr. Cleave!
And he doesn't give in. We have no idea what happens to our three protagonists after we close the cover on that final page. We readers are given the task of imagining their fates. We do, at least, have a clue that they live to tell their tales. Early on, Little Bee tells us,
In a few breaths' time I will speak sad words to you. But you must hear them the same way we have agreed to see scars now. Sad words are just another beauty. A sad story means, this story-teller is alive. (1.40)
Since our narrators, Sarah and Little Bee, tell their stories in the past tense, this quote suggests they're telling them from the perspective of a (hopefully) safe future. This wouldn't tell us anything about Charlie, but since his safety seems to be one of the ending's major issues, we're betting he's doing OK too.
Several big things happen for Charlie out there on the beach. First, he gets pursued by armed policeman who don't seem to have quandaries about shooting a child. Little Bee exposes herself to the police in order to save Charlie from possibly getting shot.
She doesn't stop there, either. In addition to possibly saving his life, Little Bee helps Charlie regain his identity. Earlier in the novel, Charlie tells Little Bee why he has to keep his Batman costume on, even in the heat of the summer. He says, "if I is not Batman all the time then mine daddy dies" (9.94). Since his father is already dead, we could also read this as "if I'm Batman all the time, maybe somehow my daddy won't really be dead." In that moment on the beach, when Little Bee shares her real name with Charlie, he strips off his costume, finally free to be a kid instead of a superhero, and finally, perhaps, accepting the death of his father.
The ending wants us to come away from the novel with the image of Little Bee laughing, looking on as Charlie, dressed only in his own skin, plays in the surf with the Nigerian children. More important, perhaps, than the ultimate fate of the characters is this idea that even in times of great tragedy, there is beauty, innocence, and harmony.
Sound a little idealistic? Well, maybe the opposite is true. Author Chris Cleave says, "Evil is not going to be vanquished. Our job is to resist it, and to plant the seeds of further resistance so that goodness never vanishes from the universe" (source).
So, we could look at the ending as a seed of goodness for readers to mull over as we imagine the futures of the characters. Or, we could be totally irritated that we don't get a more conclusive ending… Where do you stand?