Karen's Reviews > Little Bee

Little Bee by Chris Cleave
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Jul 13, 2011

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Read in July, 2011

Why I Chose This Book

Book club book! But this time it’s one that we didn’t read for book club (we read Water for Elephants instead, which I reviewed already). It was my first choice, however, and so I put my name on the reserve list at the library for it. It was a long list, so it was just as well that I didn’t have a deadline, because it’s not a book I retrospectively would have been especially happy to own. If I have to own books, I want them big and fat and epic and take me at least a week to reread. This one does not fit those requirements.

Nutshell Review of the Book

I liked it fine. How’s that? The three main characters (Sarah, Little Bee, Lawrence) were sympathetic enough, and the two secondary characters (Andrew and Charlie) did their job of being people triggering events that gave the main characters something to do. The locations were vivid in a way I don’t usually notice in books, and I won’t tell you what amazing secret the blurb on the cover begs readers not to spoil for others, but it was a dumb thing to say. It’s not a dumb secret, but it’s hardly some big reveal that upends your understanding of the whole book to that point. Kaiser Sose it ain’t. Actually, I’m not even sure what event in the book it’s supposed to refer to. Regardless, it’s a pretty good guarantee that readers will finish the book.

Detailed Review of the Book

The book is a very compelling story of a political refuge/illegal immigrant (Little Bee), unexpectedly released into the United Kingdom from a detention center with no guidance or paperwork. When the book bounces between what is happening to her in the present day and what has happened to her to make her flee Nigeria, it is at its best. The time she spends with other released refugees, or trying to find a place to stay, is the best part of the book. The government employee who is clandestinely romantically involved with Sarah (Lawrence) does everything he’s supposed to do with absolutely no charisma as a character or a person: He objects in a perfectly reasonable way to Sarah harboring Little Bee and repeats all the right state arguments about why it’s dangerous to let illegal immigrants into your home and makes good points in Sarah’s case, and serves not so much as the mouthpiece of the author’s beliefs but as the prevailing attitude of the culture, I guess, that Cleave’s book stands as an argument against. That he is also a scumbag cheating on his wife while there are small children at home is necessary, I guess, to give Little Bee some leverage in their disputes about who as a right to be where. Sarah is just a tragic figure who has done a brave thing and needs rescuing by a black girl (Little Bee) much wiser than her chronological age, with an overly precious child (Charlie) who needs a friend (also Little Bee)–a tired trope that I’ve linked to before and will link to again:

Magical Negro

Even though Sarah has also been cheating on her husband (Andrew) with a small child at home, she is not a scumbag because 1) Andrew was difficult to live with and 2) Andrew wasn’t worthy enough. She also has an awesome job that… I am stopping describing Sarah because the more I do the less I like her, particularly now that the Magicalness of Little Bee has stuck itself in my head. She didn’t really bug me in the book while I was reading, because the problems she encountered seemed realistic and she was helping Little Bee. Now when I think about her in the context of the structure… eh. Although she got the best line in the whole novel, I think: Someone asks Sarah why “the child” (Charlie, who is four) is wearing a Batman costume. Sarah answers that “the child thinks he has superpowers.” I laughed out loud. (The other line of the story that has stuck with me was when the Nigerian soldier tells Sarah that he studied mechanical engineering in the UK.)

The author explains in the Q&A at the back of the book (which is also on the author's website) that he was moved by the plight of immigrants in his country, particularly the ones processed through the detention center and asylum system. Little Bee is the character who endures that process, and it’s her story that rises above the other two. I don’t really think she needed to be framed as a guardian angel/consciousness raiser for an oblivious white woman who lives in uncomfortable stasis between the time the two women met in Nigeria and then met again in the UK. There was a lot more to learn about Little Bee and the other immigrants she encountered (I’m thinking about you, Yvette, and Girl with the Yellow Sari), and the drama with the middle class white people didn’t really bring much new to the table. And how it ended, with Sarah “seeing the light” and resolving to be the person that brings Little Bee’s message to the world (rather than Little Bee herself)… eh. Again, see Magical Negro linked to above.

I’m not telling you to skip the book. I’m telling to you skip to Little Bee’s parts of the story, and read that one part where Sarah talks about her vacation with Andrew.
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