07 March 2010

Review: Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Note: Although this review does not contain any true spoilers, it does explore the plot and characters.

A fourteen-year-old Nigerian girl and her older sister escape the brutal rapes and killings that destroy their village. They are hunted through the jungle to the ocean, where the girls see a white couple strolling on the beach. When the soldiers catch up to the girls, they race to foreigners and beg for protection.

How far will Andrew and Sarah go to save two African children they've never seen before? What will they do when, two years later, one of those girls rings them up on a sunny May morning and says she's on her way to their Surrey home?

It is very difficult to review Chris Cleave's Little Bee. On the one hand, the novel makes us aware of the social injustices going on both in Nigeria and in the UK immigration detention system. On the other hand, not one of the three people Little Bee encounters in England is up to the task of making a difference in her life. Perhaps we are all ultimately selfish and incapable of truly helping others. Let's look at the four principal characters.

Andrew is not strong enough to act on what he thinks is right, and he's unable to accept that weakness in himself. Even when he finds an outlet for his guilt and a way to help people who are attempting to find a safe haven, he keeps it secret and cannot manage to complete his task.

Lawrence is the ultimate in selfishness. His relationship with Sarah and with Little Bee center around what's in it for him. He seeks only to have all the things and people and status that he thinks will make him happy. Beyond that, it's not his problem.

Sarah's naivete is at first only barely forgivable. She should have known better; after all, she is educated, is a journalist, and is married to a journalist. The continuation of her cluelessness is less easy to comprehend. She has peeked over the fence and gotten a glimpse of what people can do to each other, but this has not shocked her into reality.

This brings us to Little Bee herself. Without a doubt, she is intelligent and resourceful, and she has not forgotten the Nigeria that took her family. Thus it is difficult to understand how easily Little Bee believes in Sarah's ability to protect her from the evils to which she's been an eyewitness. Are we to accept that Little Bee is perceptive enough to discover the means of survival in a strange land but not smart enough to see down the path in her own world?

In the end, Little Bee is somewhat disappointing. What could have been a powerful message and a call for action in the name of human rights gets lost behind the stories of three unlikeable adults and one girl whom we know mostly through her personal tragedy.

Chris Cleaves has a website where you can learn more about him and view a video about his work and Little Bee. A reading guide is also available for the novel.

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2009
ISBN-13: 9781416589631

Challenges: New Author, eBook, Buy & Read, Global, 100+
YTD: 21
Source: Bought (see review policy)
Rating: B-


Literate Housewife 3/7/10, 4:13 PM  

I am just behind you and Meghan. I didn't really read your review. I will after I'm done reading it myself during ROOB. :)

Julie 3/7/10, 4:32 PM  

I'm looking forward to our discussion. I loved this book and thought it had a lot of very powerful messages! I still have to write my review!

Chris 3/7/10, 4:34 PM  

I think I enjoyed this more than you did. I did feel that the whole situation was hopeless. The violence of one scene stays with me still.

Meghan 3/7/10, 4:35 PM  

I'm like Julie, I loved this too. I have a lot to say, but I think I'll save it for our discussion. I liked how all the adults were totally powerless and/or resistant to change their lives. It really made me question human nature, about whether I would do things differently.

Books in the City 3/7/10, 4:36 PM  

Great review! I have had my eye on this book for awhile - I think it explores interesting themes. People do seem to have mixed opinions of this one.

Kathy 3/7/10, 4:38 PM  

I loved this one too! I felt like Sarah did her best, but just didn't know how to fight they system.

softdrink 3/7/10, 4:40 PM  

I really enjoyed this one, but it hasn't really stuck with me. You're right about the characters, though...I was surprised by how little I Iiked them.

Sandy 3/7/10, 4:40 PM  

Based on the rave reviews, I convinced my mom to buy this book a couple of days ago for the flight home (with ulterior motives that I will get to read it when she is done!) Now I'm a little worried that she won't like it. Have you read 'Say You're One of Them"? That one was hard to get through...a great book but didn't offer much hope for these poor children.

Literary Feline 3/7/10, 4:41 PM  

I'm sorry this one wasn't as good as you hoped. The premise does sound quite promising. I have this in my stacks to read and hope to get to it soon.

Beth Kephart 3/7/10, 4:42 PM  

Wow. This is the first time I've actually understood, by way of review, what this book is actually about. Thank you.

Beth Kephart 3/7/10, 4:42 PM  

Oh, and I don't mean that other reviews haven't been good­simply that I struggled to know where the heart of the book lay.

Beth F 3/7/10, 4:43 PM  

From Kimbofo:

This is a perceptive review.

In the UK it is published under the name 'The Other Hand'. I read it last year when there was a lot of hype about it and found it truly disappointing. But I'm afraid I was much less gracious than you in my review.

The characters didn't bug me so much, it was more that it felt like the author was being deliberately manipulative, offering little "reveals" at the end of each chapter designed to give you a fright or challenge your assumptions. This just ended up trivialising quite important subject matter -- illegal immigration, suicide and violence, to name but a few.

Nise' 3/7/10, 4:44 PM  

I read this one this weekend and still haven't decided how I feel about it, I keep going back and forth between liking it for the social aspect of the novel but disliking it because of the characters.

Diane 3/7/10, 4:45 PM  

I read this over a year ago, and although it was a tough story, I loved it. It was my #3 pick for 2009, I believe.

Eva 3/7/10, 4:45 PM  

I think sometimes when fiction is more 'issue' based, characters go by the wayside. Which always frustrates me!

Melwyk 3/7/10, 4:46 PM  

I had the same difficulties with the characters in this book as you did. Actually, I didn't like it very much at all, too much hype and agreeing with Kimbofo, too manipulative in the writing style for me.

Amy 3/7/10, 6:16 PM  

You know I'm with you! Was not a big fan of the book.

Melody 3/7/10, 7:36 PM  

I've read some mixed reviews on this book, so I'm not in a hurry to read it.

Jenners 3/7/10, 9:22 PM  

I think I had this on my wish list but I'm not going to rush to get it now.

Alice 3/8/10, 1:16 AM  

Sorry to hear that a story that has started so well, didn't finish that way for you. But still, it sounds like something worth reading. Thanks for the review, Beth!

Natasha @ Maw Books 3/8/10, 2:47 AM  

Well, you already know how much I LOVED it! One of my favorites for the year I'm sure. But I think that has to do more with that I didn't think it was an issues book. I think it's a character, relationship driven book with issues used as a driving force. It made for a great discussion book.

Unknown 3/8/10, 4:31 AM  

I'm sorry that you didn't enjoy it - I loved this book! It was one of my favourites of 2009. I couldn't put it down and found it to be really emotional. It is one of the few books that has moved me to tears.

Jen - devourer of books 3/8/10, 11:21 AM  

I just skimmed, since I still want to read this soon-ish. I'm sorry you didn't like it, but is it terrible to say that I'm sort of happy to finally see a few bad reviews? Now I can go into it thinking "well, Natasha loved it, but Candace and Amy didn't really care for it," and temper my expectations.

Louise 3/8/10, 12:32 PM  

I have seen this one around as well. I am not super-duper interested in literature about Africa as such, and thus have never thought truly about picking this one up, but one does get curious when a certain book is mentioned around places a lot.

Anonymous,  3/14/10, 10:18 PM  

I know so many people are reading this so I'm glad I came across your honest review. I may read eventually but don't think it's going to the top of my list.

rhapsodyinbooks 3/19/10, 12:11 AM  

I waited to read your review until I read it. Great review. At this point I'm thinking I won't even write one because I don't really know how! I agree that Sarah was amazingly clueless. Over and over again. And I suppose I agree with you on the other characters. Nevertheless, I think it still imparts a powerful message.

Astrid (Mrs.B) 6/10/10, 8:25 AM  

I'm reading this right now and it's funny cos' I'm halfway and I just don't want to go on anymore. All the characters except for Little Bee are unlikeable. I feel I just don't care anymore what happens next. I'm surprised that this got so many great reviews.

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