Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Review: Little Bee by Chris Cleave

The marketing for this book is deliberately evasive on the topic of the plot of this book. The suggestion is that telling too much beyond the fact that something horrific happens on a beach in Nigeria will "spoil" everything for the reader. This kind of self-created hype ratchets up expectations for the book. And my track record with high expectations and the frenzy surrounding the books they are trumpeting as the next best thing to sliced bread is not a good one. I do much better with low key surprises that make me want to shout from the rooftops about a book's understatedness. Obviously that was never going to happen here given the paucity of information about the book itself coupled with the overwhelming number of vague laudatory comments concerning it. And I have to say that I think the secrecy surrounding it does the book a disservice which has no bearing on the actual contents but which affects the reader's experience of the book.

Opening with Little Bee in an immigrant detention center, one in which she's been for several years, this is the story of her experience in Britain after escaping the oil-greed fueled atrocities in her home country of Nigeria. Told with flashbacks to the events that led her to try and seek asylum this is a personalized account but also a sobering look at a massive political problem, one that offers few solutions. Little Bee, whose real name she hides, ever fearful, wants to find Sarah and Andrew, the British couple she met on a Nigerian beach one surreal day and amazingly, she does find Sarah, knocking on the door the very day of Andrew's funeral. In short order, it becomes clear that all of the characters in this novel have been profoundly changed by the senseless and apathetic violence they each witnessed that day by the ocean. Little Bee continues to run, examining every place she lands for ways to kill herself should she need to escape "the men." Andrew was haunted by his inability to sacrifice and ultimately unable to live with his failure. Sarah is numbed and reeling, reaching out for human connection but cannot feel its warm healing. Even Charlie, Sarah and Andrew's young son, as been affected by his parents' unconsidered vacation, donning the persona of Batman in order to save the world as he knows it, not understanding the futility of heroism.

The characters here are clearly delineated. Little Bee is preternaturally wise for her young age, which is perhaps to be expected given her life experiences. Some of the sections she narrates are a little overly self-conscious and over-wrought. Sarah is not as sympathetic a character, her motivations and actions less understandable than Little Bee's. I found Charlie to be a tad annoying and intrusive although certainly the safety of his world (leaving aside his father's death) is meant to contrast with the all-consuming fear rampant in Little Bee's Nigeria. Sarah's lover, Lawrence, while meant to be a voice of caution, seems to have a vested interest in Sarah's continued frozen existence and as such was not a terribly appealing character.

I know other people have raved about this book but I think that the novel itself is overwhelmed by the idea behind the book. It didn't help that I tend not to enjoy having the author or narrator address me, the reader, directly from the text, and that does indeed happen here. That said, the topics of immigration and asylum, our casual Western disregard for or outright denial of the atrocities occuring elsewhere are important and should be held to the light. Would I have raved about this book like so many others had my expectations not been stratospheric? I guess we'll never know. As it is, I liked it well enough but that liking comes with a thin film of disappointment. Most people will find this a revealing and amazing read and book clubs will find much to discuss if they, unlike my book club, are willing to go out on a limb and choose a book in which the entire plotline has remained cloaked and secretive.

In the interest of full disclosure, I bought my own copy of this book and several weeks later, the publisher sent me a copy as well.


  1. This is one of those books that so many people have loved, but I just have no desire to read. I actually have to say I'm glad you weren't bowled over by it

  2. I actually liked the book. I think it was the best and most thought provoking book I have read all year. Perhaps that says a lot about my reading choices but alas it is what it is. I do agree that the mystery surrounding the book was a bit over the top but for me it was an enjoyable read nonetheless.
    Love & Hugs,

  3. You are right about the hype, so I will not be reading this one right now. I recently had a struggle with another over-hyped book, so I would rather wait a while before reading it. Nice marketing ploy, isn't it? It's funny when it backfires!

  4. I actually ended up liking the book...but I was VERY irritated with the marketing of it. Unlike a lot of the readers, I liked Charlie (I was surprised how many readers hated this character!). I don't think the publisher did the author any good by marketing the book as they did...

  5. So, we managed to avoid the hype and are just now reading this book. Our meeting is still the first Monday of the month and clearly you miss us as we are still willing to read anything (as long as the cover isn't offensive!).

  6. We managed to avoid the hype and are just now finishing this book for our regular meeting (first Monday of the month). Clearly you miss us as we are still willing to read anything (as long as the cover isn't offensive)!


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