Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Review: Little Bee

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

What a great book.  I've been reading this since I got to Palm Springs and I was kind of sad to finish it this morning.

This is another one that's been on my maybe read list for some time because I'd heard people talking about it, but I think the marketing strategy had the opposite effect that was intended--it really scared me off.  If you read the blurb on Amazon, you'll see what I'm talking about.  There's almost an ominous tone to the description of the book.  I was happy to find the reality was nothing so disturbing as how they painted it.  I think I like to make my own mind up about how much something will affect me rather than having someone tell me how I'm going to react to it.

Anyway, this book is wonderful.  Little Bee is a refugee from Nigeria who finds herself first in a detention center in England and then in the home of a woman with whom she shares some significant past history.  The book is written in the dialect of different characters and the point of view changes with every chapter.  The author did such a nice seamless job of embodying the two distinct narrators' voices that I was completely absorbed in the story without ever feeling like I was aware of it as a technique.  That's my favorite kind of book.

The book deals with all kinds of issues--coming of age, marriage and commitment, immigration and parenting.  It was a comfortable read and I was so hooked into it that I wanted to keep reading to see where it would go.  The characters felt authentic to me and the parts of the story that are told through flashback are very effective in revealing just enough information at a time.  Parts of it are disturbing, as you'd imagine a refugee story would be, but there's nothing so profoundly offensive here that an adult reader couldn't handle it.  In fact, I think that by describing the book that way the publisher has kept many people from having a realistic emotional experience related to the kind of events that Little Bee witnesses. If the purpose of stories is to help people feel something, than telling them that it's a big secret doesn't do the story any justice.  Little Bee flees her country because she witnesses the atrocities of war. People need to know what that looks like, but it doesn't overshadow what is otherwise a lovely and interesting story.

My recommendation: Don't be scared off by descriptions of the plot as "brutal" on Amazon.  They overshadow what is a really touching, funny, interesting book.  This is a worthy read and I'd recommend it to just about everybody.


  1. I was interested in your assessment that the book is about coming of age, marriage and commitment, immigration and parenting. I thought the book was about loyalty and honor. I loved it because it presented the characters and the reader with situations in which we wanted to be sympathetic to weakness even though we longed for strength in those same moments. It seemed to ask of both characters and reader - is it ok to be weak when the circumstances make it so hard to be strong? Or are you somehow still a bad person for choosing personal safety over loyalty? In other words, are there limits to how much loyalty anyone can be expected to show?

  2. So interesting. I agree completely with everything you read in it, too. I think for me it was about this deep sadness that comes with realizing that people are not necessarily going to choose you over something else, and in Little Bee's case, realizing that you can't escape whatever you're running from. I think in that way it was really beautiful--not beautiful good, but beautiful sad. For me in each character's journey--whether in marriage, mothering, escape, whatever, they had to look at that idea of loyalty and choice. I'll admit that I didn't like her husband, though. I felt bad for how he ended up, but I wanted him to make up for his choice on the beach--or to not have chosen that way at all. The story/ characters seemed very real to me. I liked the tension about expecting people to act one way and then how they don't really ever do exactly what you'd hope they'd do.

    I love your thought about "situations in which we wanted to be sympathetic to weakness even though we longed for strength in those same moments." You put it into words better than I could. For me growing up is realizing that there's this kind of duality of weakness and strength in all people.

    Thanks for being in my two-man book club. ;)