Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Random Book Review: "Little Bee" by Chris Cleave

"Little Bee" is the story of a Nigerian refugee who flees to England to find the couple she met on a beach during the most traumatic moment of her life.

I'm still trying to figure out what I think about this book, so bear with me if you would...

On one hand, there's no denying the power of the beach scene. I have no doubt that this scene sold the book and carried it. Cleave hints about "what happened" until about the midpoint and then, although the narrative begins to falter soon after, you can't help but keep going. Such is the power and momentum of a well-written tension-rich scene. (Sorry if this seems cryptic, but I can't say much more about this scene without a major spoiler.)

On the other hand, there's the whole tricky matter of race and gender. Cleave writes in the voice of Little Bee, and it's sort of offensive that Little Bee is so damn noble all the time. This gives the book a "Driving Miss Daisy" tint that I just can't shake.

Yes, it's brave to co-opt the voice of some other race, gender, socio-economic class, etc etc, but it is impossible too. And slightly offensive. I don't know much about Mr. Cleave, but he feels to be dabbling here, Bee's emotions seem too.... simple, neat, pat. I don't trust he knows what this kind of trauma is like or that he can understand Little Bee's world. I don't trust this sort of co-opting is entirely respectful. Bee seems at times like the Disney version of a traumatized refugee, valiant, spunky, uttering the sort of hopeful wisdom that can change the life of poor privileged English folk. This is compounded by the other main character, Sara. Sara alternates between selfishness, confusion and the starry-eyed belief that she can "save" Little Bee like a starfish on the beach.

On the other hand, the novel is beautifully written, rich in texture and metaphor and descriptions so interesting and unique you'll want to store them away to mull over later. Cleave is a very skilled writer, there's no doubt about that.

On the other hand, there are many events that felt contrived to me, plot points that seemed designed to carry the story forward rather than growing organically from it--SPOILER ALERT!-- Sara's asking Bee to call the police on her cell phone, or Sara's realization that her son is the neglected center of her life one minute and her decision to cart him off to Nigeria and put him in mortal danger the next.

On the other hand, I needed to finish this book whatever the flaws. It kept me reading.

On the other hand, it is preachy. There are moments of dialogue-- especially between Sara and her self-centered boyfriend, Lawrence, that have no purpose other than to help us readers consider the issue of refugees and asylum. I wish Cleave had trusted us to come to our own conclusions.

What a great many hands! Eh?

Little Bee is interesting, a good read, not the amazing book it is purported to be (bee?) In the end, it fails to address the many issues that buzz around it like a swarm of (pardon, please) little bees.


Saumya said...

I really wanted to read this!! Thanks for adding something to my list and thank you more for giving an honest opinion.

Jen Chandler said...

Hello Perri! Thank you so much for following my blog :D Very nice to meet you.

I've seen this book around but I never knew what it was about. Thank you for your honest review of it!


Samantha Sotto-Yambao said...

I've been considering reading this book. Thanks for the fair and honest review. :)