Judging Chris Cleave's Little Bee by its cover is a surprisingly useful exercise. Against an orange background, an African girl's face is silhouetted in profile; where her eye should be is a white woman's head, also in profile. And the jacket copy: "We don't want to tell you WHAT HAPPENS in this book. It is a truly SPECIAL STORY and we don't want to spoil it." The cover insists that Little Bee has an important story to tell, but coyly promises that it will be an accessible, relatable one. Were the cover to actually summarize the book's contents, it would run the risk of being dismissed out of the very indifference Little Bee aims to combat: the general unwillingness of rich white people to care about the suffering of poor brown people.
Little Bee is, in essence, a white author's attempt to humanize the plight of Britain's African immigrants. Little Bee also happens to be about a white writer attempting to humanize the plight of Britain's African immigrants.
The narrative's white writer is a magazine editor, Sarah, who runs a women's magazine where she must make hard (but symbolically loaded!) decisions about whether to run stories about female refugees or female orgasms. Four years before the novel picks up, Sarah and her husband vacationed in Nigeria, where they had a charged encounter with a young girl, Little Bee, who was fleeing violence in her home village. Little Bee escaped Nigeria only to spend two years imprisoned in a British detention center—upon her release, the only name she knows is that of Sarah's husband, Andrew. She arrives on Sarah's doorstep days after Andrew has committed suicide; in first-person chapters alternating between Sarah and Little Bee's perspective, Cleave unravels how the two women arrived at this strange juncture.
For all Cleave's obvious earnestness in shedding light on the plight of African immigrants, the novel as a whole feels over-planned and manipulative. Much the way that Sarah wants readers of her magazine to care about the plight of refugees, Little Bee conspires to humanize the "immigration problem," in order that desensitized readers might learn to care about a poor immigrant girl, and by extension all suffering immigrants. An admirable goal, but too transparently executed to succeed.