One thing I really liked about this novel is that for once the back of the book didn't give too much away. It simply stated that it was about two women who had met two years previously in a life changing event, and were about to meet again. Granted, if it hadn't been for the fact that this novel was on several bestseller lists, and I kept seeing it everywhere, this might have been too vague of a description to interest me, but as it was, it actually worked.
The story has two narrators with alternating chapters: Little Bee and Sarah, the two women described on the back. Little Bee is a refugee from Nigeria, and Sarah is a British woman who once spent a holiday in Nigeria with her deceased husband. While some novels would spend the majority of the novel trying to hide their relationship or some huge twist, that wasn't really the case here at all, another point in its favor. While the author doesn't come straight out in the first chapter or two and reveal their past relationship, he reveals it early enough so that the reader doesn't spend the rest of the novel racing through the novel to discover what happened. Instead, by revealing their link fairly early, he allows the story to focus the relationship between the women and its development.
Little Bee has spent the past two years at refugee detention center waiting for her request to be denied or granted, and at the very beginning of the novel is released. However, things seem slightly off, and her and the other three women's release may have actually been a mistake. Still, Little Bee has one advantage over her fellow refugees: she actually knows someone in England. Sarah is in her early thirties, has a 5 year old son named Charlie that refuses to wear anything but his batman costume, and she is about to bury her husband. It's a weird time for her to say the least because she and her husband have long been distant, not the least of which has to do with an incident from two years ago. Sarah is having a bit of midlife crisis as well: she runs a fashion magazine but especially now that the magazine has become more established, she is disappointed with its direction. Originally she wanted to run a magazine that was different from the average woman's magazine, one that actually focused on issues and not just fashion, but she now finds herself choosing articles about great orgasm or vibrators over articles about women in Baghdad etc. It is at this point that Little Bee comes back into her life.
Cleave uses this novel to explore the conditions of refugees in England, though I'm sure their treatment is comparable in other Western countries, and bring awareness to continuing issues in countries that now are considered relatively safe. As a refugee from Jamaica tells Little Bee early in the novel, people don't believe that they really need asylum from their countries and their requests tend to be denied. There were also quite a few pieces of humor mixed in. Little Bee explains that she was so afraid of certain situations that she would always plan her suicide and escape route whereever she was. She also applied this to historical situations, stating that the best way to commit sucide in under Henry VIII's reign would have been to "marry Henry the Eighth" (49). Sarah is a flawed character, but her struggles with her identity and her flaws make her very relatable. After all, how many people wanted to change the world at one point only to end up in successful career that really was simply going along with the status quo? And yet, despite all her flaws, she is still willing to do much more than many others. The novel doesn't offer simple answers or even a happy ending, though one could see a certain hopefulness in the bond these women develop - however, I don't if it's enough to make a difference. I can't say I quite believed the ending, or at least a certain part of it, but overall, I enjoyed the novel and the characters.