Little Bee by Guardian columnist Chris Cleave is a tragedy. I'll just tell you up front. It is a tragedy that seems like it could've been written by Nick Hornby, if Hornby woke up the day after writing How to Be Good and decided to try it again, while wearing his Serious Pants. That is that this book has funny, flashy moments in every single chapter, sometimes in every single paragraph, and yet at the end it leaves you with the heavy, bookish despair that great British novels excel at invoking. You read, and you wonder, "Isn't there something I can do?" and you feel bad for ever having thought you had the right to try.
The story follows two main characters: Little Bee, a Nigerian refugee who has traveled to London, and Sarah Summers O'Rourke, whose husband, a columnist named Andrew, has just killed himself. The story alternates between the two women's points of view, and a fair amount of it is told in flashbacks, because their shared story actually began two years before the book opens. Sarah is the editor of a successful, if trivial, fashion magazine, on the verge of a mid-life crisis even before Little Bee lands back in her life and Andrew leaves it. Once these two events happen, however, her story becomes almost entirely one of very typical Upper-Class Longing: She wants the life of purpose. Little Bee seems, in some ways, to provide that answer.
Little Bee herself is much less interested in purpose than in survival, and as such, her character necessarily comes off as the more realistic and thoughtful of the two — though the things that have happened to her, the revelations of which are one of the book's main mysteries, are hard to believe. Through her, the author tries — and largely succeeds — in making a statement about the horrors of internment that refugees who come to Britain face. Sarah, going through her husband's papers, finds and reads a report about the immigration detention centers, similar to where Bee has been held. "Is it true they keep it deliberately cold in there? Is it true you have to apply in writing if you just need a paracetamol?" she asks Bee, and of course, we know before she responds that these things must be true.
Sarah and her son, Charlie — who is a bright and absolutely accurate four-year-old throughout the book, clinging to a Batman costume — live in well-tended suburbia when Little Bee arrives on their doorstep, and throughout the book this seems to be the country that Sarah — that maybe even Cleave — is at war with. It is also the most clearly painted country, because we see it so sharply through both women's eyes — and because, aside from (but sometimes briefly including) these women, it is populated with absolutely recognizable cowards and assholes at every turn.
The landscape from which Bee is fleeing, on the other hand, remains out of sight, though Bee thinks of it quite often. It is still — and perhaps this is Cleave's trick — too fantastic, too terrible to be real.