Little Bee, Chris Cleave, Simon & Schuster, 2009, 266 pp
There was big buzz about Little Bee when I arrived back at work after my sojourn in Michigan. The inside flap of the dustcover asks readers not to tell anyone else what happens in the story, after not telling the prospective reader much except that it is a story of two women whose lives collide until one of the women has to make a terrible choice.
Now I have read the book and must make the terrible choice about what to tell. Of course, by now you can almost get the whole story from various places on the internet. Fine. That saves me from having to rehash the plot which I don't think has much use in a book review.
Little Bee did not work for me. A Nigerian refugee and asylum seeker in nasty old post-colonial Great Britain has named herself Little Bee and taught herself the Queen's English, both actions being worked out by her as survival mechanisms. She is a terrorized teen suffering from the complete destruction and loss of her village life in Nigeria. Miraculously she is alive, intelligent, plucky, sympathetic and wise beyond her years. The author seemingly took two different characters and melded them into one and I found the result unbelievable.
The other woman is Sarah, an upper middle class British mum with a four year old son, a hip fashion magazine, a tragic husband and a married lover. She is selfish, self-centered, an airhead and would do just fine in a chick lit novel. Yet we are expected to believe that she also has a conscience, loves her son deeply and can take on responsibility for the consequences of globalization and capitalism all by her little own self. Sorry, couldn't believe that either.
My final complaint is an aversion I have to white people explaining what it is like to be a black person, whether that black person is African or American or Jamaican or any combination of the above. I am sure the author had good intentions and felt there was a story that needed telling, but it all comes off like an Oprah pick.
I am willing to accept rebuttal in the comments. Write on!
(Little Bee is in stock in hardcover at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.