Saturday, March 6, 2010

'Little Bee' Lives Up to Its Big Reputation

Words used to describe Chris Cleave's novel Little Bee:
  • "satisfying" and "heart-rending" - The Washington Post
  • "affecting" - The New York Times
  • "urgent and wryly funny" -
  • "thought-provoking" - Chicago Sun-Times
  • "unforgettable" - Bookmarks magazine
Needless to say, from this glowing list of recommendations, Little Bee has been on my to-read list for some time. In addition to these professional reviews, numerous book bloggers have read and discussed the novel, as well. Cleave has written a novel which transcends genre boundaries. He is a male writer who creates two strong female narrative voices. And Little Bee is not a novel strictly of Nigeria or strictly of Britain, though it is set in and deals with both countries. Rather, it is a tale of humanity at its darkest and at its finest; of the good and evil which exists in all of us.

The only negative to the novel is the silly, insipid description inside the book jacket cover. The one thing that description does correctly is not tell the reader too much about the plot. In my opinion, in addition to the knee-jerkingly realistic characters, the careful unveiling of plot is what makes the novel so special. So I will be careful in what I say about the novel.

It is the story of two countries and two continents, and ultimately of two women: one Nigerian, one British. It is a political novel disguised as a character study. Cleave connects the lives of Little Bee and Sarah, two women as different as any two could be. He also describes conditions inside British refugee detention centers, the small skirmishes occurring constantly in Africa, and the disconnect between the modern western world and the rest of the globe.

While Little Bee is a beautiful story, it is also a heart-wrenching one. Cleave includes heavy themes in his little novel (just over 250 pages long). Themes running through the novel include: suicide, genocide, loss of family, search for self, war, infidelity, incarceration, and mental illness. I won't reveal how this all ties together, but will only say it does so masterfully. I also won't tell a lie and say the book is not sometimes difficult to read. The subject matter makes it so, but often we need to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones. Otherwise we would not learn about the horrors and heroism that exist in the world. In short, we remain modern world inhabitants who turn blindly away from reality.

The story of Little Bee was personal for me in a way. My brother and sister-in-law moved last March to Tanzania to do missionary work there. They are home in the U.S. at the moment (so that my nephew -- who is now a whopping ten days overdue! -- can be born), but in April they will return for several more years. Since March, I have avoided all mention of any negative aspects of Africa; in other words, no watching Hotel Rwanda, or reading about civil wars. Nigeria is on the other side of the continent from Tanzania, but still I found myself having to pause in my reading of this novel at times. I'm glad I overcame my fears. I think that having loved ones closer to the novel's action brings the point home even more for me.

Read the first chapter of the novel, to prompt yourself to run to the library or bookstore immediately and find it.

Cleave is the author of one other novel, Incendiary, which needless to say I'll be reading soon. He writes a regular column in the London newspaper The Guardian. He will be touring in the United States this winter/spring. Check his tour dates to find out if he'll be close enough to answer your questions in person.

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