Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Chris Cleave, _Little Bee_

OUR BOOK CLUB selection for April. I don't know whether book clubs are as popular in Britain as they are here, but this novel could almost have been designed as a book club selection: narrated in two quite distinct women's voices, with a significant and painful politico-moral issue as its background, quite a bit of humor but also one scene of horrifying action, a redemption-through-self-sacrifice theme in its conclusion.  An enjoyable read and discuss-able, a book that book-club members would be highly likely to recommend to friends in other book clubs who are looking for suggestions.

Did I myself enjoy the book? Sometimes.

Every other chapter in the novel is narrated by Little Bee, a teenaged Nigerian refugee who makes her way to England to elude some oil company thugs who have massacred her village and want to leave no witnesses. Why England?  Because of a horrible encounter on a beach involving herself, her sister, the thugs, and a vacationing English couple--the details of which Cleave withholds for about half the novel--she has the phone number of the husband in the couple. After two or three years in a detention center, she finds a way to get out and calls the man, announcing her imminent arrival on his doorstep. On getting this news, he hangs himself.

The alternating chapters are narrated by Sarah O'Rourke, lifestyle magazine editor, mother of a pre-schooler boy who is always in a Batman costume, and widow of the man who hung himself. Sarah was on the beach as well at the time of the horrifying encounter, and was not at all expecting to see Little Bee again. What to do with her?

Cleave shows ambition in choosing to write his novel in the voices of two women, and two such different women at that, one of whom with a cultural experience remote from his own. I thought he did well with this, though. Both Little Bee and Sarah are intelligent, observant, and aware, and Cleave's handling of their struggle to fashion a relationship out of the trauma of their first meeting is affecting.  This was the strength of the novel, I thought.

Less convincing are Cleave's contrivances to get Little Bee back to Nigeria (Sarah comes along, with her son) for yet another encounter with the same oil company thugs on, wouldn't you know it, the very same beach, with, yes indeed, another suddenly opened opportunity to sacrifice oneself for another, only this time....

In these last fifty pages, I wondered whether Cleave was thinking less of book clubs than of Hollywood. After working hard to keep things plausible--e.g., research into English detention centers for refugees, into Nigerian idioms--he makes a beeline for the heart of melodrama. Disappointing.  Well, we all have to make a living.

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