If you've seen The Beach (with Leonardo DiCaprio – oh, right, of course you've seen it then), or read Daphne Du Maurier's classic novel Rebecca, you know that the most beautiful places can easily become sites of intense horror too. We see this most acutely in the Nigerian scenes of Little Bee. Sarah's English suburb, Kingston-upon-Thames is also a place of beauty which, for Andrew, becomes a place of despair and horror.
All of this is also kind of like what happens in Edgar Allan Poe's classic short story "The Masque of the Red Death," but with a new twist. Haven't read that one? Never fear – in "The Masque of the Red Death," Prince Prospero holes up inside his exquisite castle with his party pals to isolate himself and said pals from the plague (the Red Death) sweeping their land. But, the Red Death invades the castle, showing Prospero and the partiers (rather grimly) the reality of the world, which is suffering and death that doesn't discriminate.
For the English people in the novel, Little Bee, and the many asylum seekers she represents, is something akin to Poe's Red Death. She's an uncomfortable reminder that we live in a world where, as Chris Cleave says, "A billion people are hungry, hundreds of conflicts and wars are ongoing, tens of millions suffer from eradicable illnesses and there is always at least one genocide underway somewhere on the planet […]" (source). Little Bee echoes this idea in the novel when she tells Sarah, "You have seen trouble too, Sarah. You are making a mistake if you think it's unusual. I am telling you, trouble is like the ocean. It covers two thirds of the world" (5.80).
For Sarah's husband Andrew, coming face-to-face with this knowledge is too much. His place of comfort turns into a place of horror when he realizes how uncomfortably so many others are living. He finally learns that people seeking asylum in his land are being abused, instead of helped – and he feels powerless to stop this.
Ultimately, Little Bee argues for more humane attitudes toward and interactions with people seeking refuge. It can be seen as a call for reform at both institutional and individual levels. Although Chris Cleave is specifically taking on the UK here, readers across the globe will probably find something similar in relevant right in their own backyard too.
Ready to dive into the history of immigration in the UK? OK, here we go. After World War II, in response to a shortage of labor in Britain, The British Nationality Act of 1948 was passed. The Act "conferred the status of British citizen on all Commonwealth subjects and recognised their right to work and settle in the UK and to bring their families with them" (source). Come to Britain, all!* (*In the Commonwealth, but still.)
This marked the beginning of what's sometimes called The Windrush Generation, so named after the SS Empire Windrush, the ship carrying some of the first people to take advantage of the new law (source). This led to a much more multicultural British society, but also to a bunch of increased anti-immigrant sentiment on the part of the folks already in the country.
Still with us on the history? In response this hostility, then, The British Nationality Act of 1971 and the British Nationality Act of 1981 severely restricted immigration, essentially dumping that open-armed rule on its head. This changed the culture a bit, in that England (like the US) was and is still seen as a kind of promised land. You might recall the simple quote from sari girl, one of the girls released with Little Bee from the fictional immigration detention center: "ENGLAND, YES PLEASE THANK YOU, I WANT TO GO TO ENGLAND" (1.54). In her eyes, as in the eyes of others, if you can reach England, all your troubles will be over.
As sari girl's quote also suggests, there's a big disconnect between the idea of England as a promised land and the reality. Sari girl can't imagine she's already reached England because she's been locked in the detention center, which is clearly nobody's idea of a promise land. We aren't given precise details about life in the detention center, but we can tell it's far from pleasant ("detention" is in the title, after all). Most importantly, it seems to be a place where someone like Little Bee (who's only fourteen when she's detained) is held indefinitely.
Chris Cleave's interest in writing about the experiences of people in immigration detention centers began fifteen years before he wrote the book:
Around fifteen years ago […] for three days I worked in the canteen of Campsfield House in Oxfordshire. It's a detention centre for asylum seekers – a prison, if you like, full of people who haven't committed a crime. […] The conditions in there were very distressing. I got talking with asylum seekers who'd been through hell and were likely to be sent back to hell. […] I knew I had to write about it, because it's such a dirty secret. (source)
This reminds us of Stieg Larsson, late author of the bestselling Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels. Larsson's experience of witnessing a gang rape when he was fifteen years old inspired him to write about violence against women when he was in his forties – that experience stuck with him all those decades. Is there anything that you've witnessed or experienced that you might write a book about in the future?
Nigeria is an African country, a former British colony, and one of the world's most significant producers of oil (source). We learn in bits and pieces that an oil company (or companies) paid people to destroy Little Bee's village and all the people in it, so they could use the land for an oil field. Little Bee and her sister, who dies before the novel opens, escape but are wanted dead because they witnessed the atrocities. When asked if this part of the story is based on real happenings, Cleave replied,
Absolutely. Nigeria is the world's eighth-largest petroleum exporting nation. […] And there has been endless violence and corruption connected with the oil exploitation – many there see it as a curse on the nation. […] Almost everyone has made a fortune except the villagers from whose land the oil is extracted. Many, many lives have been lost. (source)
And, unfortunately, Nigeria is where all of the novel's overt violence and brutality occur. It's where Sarah loses her finger, and where she really starts to lose her husband. It's also where Little Bee listens to the sounds of her sister being raped, tortured, and murdered, just feet away from her. But, it is also where Little Bee, Charlie, and Sarah really become a family, and where they begin to collect the stories of Nigerian people as part of the process of continuing Andrew's work and bringing the truth to the public.