BOOK: Little Bee by Chris Cleave (2009)

Let me start this review off by saying I was very surprised by my reaction to this novel. Not only was it highly recommended by a friend, but damned if every review in every major newspaper I’ve read wasn’t also absolutely gushing.  I expected to fall in love with it, to be blown away by its story, characters, and the writing that brought those two elements to life.

Instead?  While it was intriguing enough to keep me reading until the end, ultimately I didn’t engage much with it.  It was a good story, but overall I found it kind of uninspired and uninspiring.  I can’t explain this.  Perhaps you can.

The novel tells the story of two very different women brought together by astonishing circumstance.  The first is a white British woman named Sarah O’Rourke who has just lost her husband Andrew as the novel begins.   A writer and now-single mother to a little boy who dresses as Batman every day to fight the “baddies,” Sarah is about as mainstream dull as we 30-something women come.  Before her husband’s death shocked her into a new state of mind, she was having a fairly traditional mid-life crisis, including an affair with an also-married colleague.  She had little awareness of the world around her and was lacking in passion for life in general.

While we’re getting to know O’Rourke, we’re also getting to know a young Nigerian refugee who goes by the name “Little Bee” and has, as the novel begins, just escaped from two years of detention in England, where she’d been forced to sit and wait while the government decided whether to allow her to enter the UK or send her back to her violent, dangerous homeland.  Little Bee knows that if she returns to Nigeria, she’ll be killed, and so when given the chance to run, she snatches it up, risks be damned.  She’s savvy, sharp, and kind, with a past so traumatic it’s hard to believe she’s still alive.  It’s her stubbornness that’s kept her going all this time, her stubbornness and one other thing:  Andrew’s wallet, a connection to England, a connection she has spent years and years trying to reestablish.

As it turns out, Sarah and Little Bee already know each other.  They met several years prior, when Sarah took her husband on a vacation to war-torn Nigeria in an attempt to save their marriage (they didn’t quite understand the “war-torn” part, obviously, as we Westerners tend not to).  There on a beach, the two heedless tourists encountered Little Bee and her sister, soon followed by a group of soldiers out for blood.  How Little Bee and Sarah survived is a horrific tale, for both women as well as for Andrew, who ultimately committed suicide in part because of the events of that day.  Now that she’s finally out of detention, Little Bee heads straight for Sarah, using Andrew’s driver’s license, which he’d dropped in shock on that Nigerian beach all those many years ago, to find her.

When Little Bee appears at Sarah’s door, Sarah is at first overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility for her.  A sort of guilt, almost.  She had believed Little Bee to be dead and had spent the past several years trying to push the incident as deep into a corner of her mind as possible.  But as their relationship grows, the two women come to rely on each other for strength, strength that ultimately takes them back to Nigeria in a finale that, I’ll confess, absolutely frustrated me to no end, and, frankly, made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever.  (This may have been more out of frustration with the way the world works, I think, than it was with Cleave’s plot itself, however.  Hard for me to say.)

Oddly, this description almost makes me appreciate the book more.  It’s a good story, it really is.  But the writing lacked something for me.  It lacked impact.  Cleave had a good grasp on dialogue, and on dialect for that matter, but his descriptions were powerless and I never got a clean sense of the characters themselves or their emotional states.  I wasn’t moved by this novel, I guess is what I’m saying.  I felt completely disconnected from it the entire time I was reading, and I turned the last page absolutely astounded by all the praise it has  received.

It’s possible I simply wasn’t in the right mood for this story.  But I can’t help but feel like it’s a problem that lies more with the book itself than with me.  Have you read this one, friends?  What did you think?  I’d love to have a conversation about it, especially if your experience was dramatically different from mine.  Hitten zee comments and tell me what you have to say.


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3 Responses to “BOOK: Little Bee by Chris Cleave (2009)”

  1. Peggy daCosta Godfrey Says:

    The book demanded my attention.The conversation and time lapses hard to follow. Batman was four when the book began, then suddenly he was only two when Lawrence comes into the story.
    Why does the stupid Sarah return to Nigeria with Little Bee and Batman.
    The story is weightless, frothy .The Jamaican connection inaccurate.
    It misses the surge for a peacful existance, instead is the cause for more unrest. The ending well……?

  2. Nac Says:

    I sought out other people’s reaction to this book because I was astounded at the reviews it received. “one of the best books of 2008”!? That doesn’t say a lot for the quality of books then. It was mediocre. I felt it was trying too hard to get my sympathy. The Nigerian character of course falls into the cookie cutter mold of African characters used by Western writers. I couldn’t stand the book. I still can’t believe that it’s doing so well and that someone recommended it so highly.

  3. Melissa Says:

    I liked this book very well towards the end I could not put it down, but when I got to the end I threw the book! How could it possibly end like that, really!? There were still unanswered questions!! If you ask me, and you did 🙂 , he needs to write a sequel!

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