Sarah O'Rourke finds her whole world changed within the span of a couple of years after a violent confrontation on a beach in Nigeria and the death of her husband, Andrew, soon after. Meanwhile, Nigerian teenager Little Bee sails clandestinely into the United Kingdom and is eventually placed in detention at the Essex Immigration Center. The only connection that she has to the English couple is Andrew’s driver’s license, left on the beach in a see-through plastic bag.
All that remains of Little Bee’s former life are dreams of her parents and her big sister, Nkiruka, now dead at the hands of
the rebel soldiers killing those who have the terrible misfortune to live on valuable Nigerian oil deposits. Together with three other girls, Little Bee
finds herself at the mercy of the British immigration authorities. Bee, however, is a survivor.
Upon her release from detention, she runs away, traveling across rural England to London, where she eventually finds her way to the doorstep of Sarah’s house in Kingston-upon-Thames.
While Bee attempts to seek shelter with Sarah and Andrew, the intervening two years have not been kind to the upwardly mobile
young couple. The ensuing months bring on a series of worsening premonitions as Andrew slowly slinks into inescapable depression. Even though Andrew just can’t face seeing Bee again, Sarah decides otherwise. Bee’s presence reminds her that the only souvenir of that terrible day on the beach is an absence where the middle finger of her left hand used to be.
Sarah’s loveable son, Charlie, who constantly fills out his Batman costume, is delighted with his new playmate, finding comfort in the older girl’s brand-new intimacies; Bee’s compassion offers a partial solution to the sudden loss of his father. Soon this enigmatic dark-haired foreigner who has learned to speak the Queen’s English is becoming an important person in both Sarah and Charlie’s life. Vowing to help each other, Sarah and Little
Bee decide to return to Nigeria to confront their inner demons and the fear that has ruled much of their lives since that shocking afternoon when Sarah lost her finger and Bee lost her beloved sister.
Cleave dramatically layers Sarah and Little Bee’s stories against a background of a sometimes violent and newly globalized world, where the only asylum is in one’s conscience and girls like Little Bee are just silhouettes in the larger swath of humanity. Although she embraces the comfort and security that Sarah offers her, there is little Bee can do when she’s ultimately faced with an uncaring and coldhearted governmental system that threatens to deport her for no good reason apart from the fact that she’s viewed as a foreigner.
Sarah is torn apart by her dissatisfactions - her house, her job, and grief “all shrinking to a point behind her”
- along with the guilt that she destroyed her husband by cheating on him with her lover, Lawrence. Yet it is Little Bee who seems to suffer the most, having lost both her parents, her sister, and her ancestral home. In the end, the author perfectly encapsulates Little Bee’s yearnings and longings, her aspirations and insecurities, even as she makes the last and greatest sacrifice of love.