April 19, 2009
Little Bee by Chris Cleave
2009 Simon & Schuster
Finished on 4/9/09
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
From the author of the international bestseller Incendiary comes a haunting novel about the tenuous friendship that blooms between two disparate strangers — one an illegal Nigerian refugee, the other a recent widow from suburban London.
We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this: This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face. Two years later, they meet again—the story starts there…
I went into this book completely blind. Although I'd seen it at work (who could miss that brilliantly colored cover art?!), I had no idea what it was about and hadn't heard any buzz (no pun intended) about the details of the story. Then I came across Marcia's enticing review and decided I had to give it a read. Picked up a copy and devoured it in just a couple of days. Unputdownable! I fell in love with Little Bee and Sarah's son, Charlie (the latter of whom provides a touch of much needed humor in this distressing, yet powerful novel), and know they will join my ever-growing list of memorable characters.
Cleave is a marvelous storyteller. The main characters are fully realized and the dialogue is well executed and realistic. I loved the author's device for explaining cultural differences by having Little Bee explain how she would describe a particular situation to "the girls from back home."
I wait for a gap in the traffic and then I ran across to the center of the road. I climbed over the metal barrier. This time a great many car horns were blown at me. I ran across, and up the green grass bank at the other side of the road. I sat down. I was out of breath. I watched the traffic racing past below me, three lines in one direction and three lines in the other. If I was telling this story to the girls from back home they would be saying, Okay, it was the morning, so the people were traveling to work in the fields. But why do the people who are driving from right to left not exchange their fields with the people who are driving from left to right? That way everyone could work in the fields near to their homes. And then I would just shrug because there are no answers that would not lead to more foolish questions, like What is an office and what crops can you grow in it?
Cleave paints a vivid portrait of the harsh realities in an immigration detention center:
Me, I was a woman under white fluorescent strip lights, in an underground room in an immigration detention center forty miles east of London. There were no seasons there. It was cold, cold, cold, and I did not have anyone to smile at. Those cold years are frozen inside me. The African girl they locked up in the immigration detention center, poor child, she never really escaped. In my soul she is still locked up in there, forever, under the fluorescent lights, curled up on the green linoleum floor with her knees tucked up underneath her chin. And this woman they released from the immigration detention center, this creature that I am, she is a new breed of human. There is nothing natural about me. I was born—no, I was reborn—in captivity. I learned my language from your newspapers, my clothes are your castoffs, and it is your pound that makes my pockets ache with its absence. Imagine a young woman cut from a smiling Save the Children magazine advertisement, who dresses herself in threadbare pink clothes from the recycling bin in your local supermarket car park and speaks English like the leader column of The Times, if you please. I would cross the street to avoid me. Truly, this is the one thing that people from your country and people from my country agree on. They say, That refugee girl is not one of us. That girl does not belong. That girl is a halfling, a child of an unnatural mating, an unfamiliar face in the moon.
On an asylum seeker's newly found freedom:
Outside, the fresh air smelled of wet grass. It blew in my face. The smell made me panic. For two years I had smelled only bleach, and my nail varnish, and the other detainees' cigarettes. Nothing natural. Nothing like this. I felt that if I took one step forward, the earth itself would rise up and reject me. There was nothing natural about me now. I stood there in my heavy boots with my breasts strapped down, neither a woman nor a girl, a creature who had forgotten her language and learned yours, whose past had crumbled to dust.
On desperation and loneliness:
Three weeks and five thousand miles on a tea ship—maybe if you scratched me you would still find that my skin smells of it. When they put me in the immigration detention center, they gave me a brown blanket and a white plastic cup of tea. And when I tasted it, all I wanted to do was to get back into the boat and go home again, to my country. Tea is the taste of my land: it is bitter and warm, strong, and sharp with memory. It tastes of longing. It tastes of the distance between where you are and where you come from. And it vanishes—the taste of it vanishes from your tongue when your lips are still hot from the cup. It disappears, like plantations stretching up into the mist. I have heard that your country drinks more tea than any other. How sad that must make you—like children who long for absent mothers. I am sorry.
Little Bee on the sad irony of rock music's popularity:
"Everyone in my village liked U2," I said. "Everyone in my country, maybe. Wouldn't that be funny, if the oil rebels were playing U2 in their jungle camps, and the government soldiers were playing U2 in their trucks. I think everyone was killing everyone else and listening to the same music. Do you know what? The first week I was in the detention center, U2 were number one here too. That is a good trick about this world, Sarah. No one likes each other, but everyone likes U2."
As I sit here composing this review, I find myself thinking back to The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver's excellent novel about a missionary family's experience in an African village in the 1960s. Both Little Bee and The Poisonwood Bible deal with tragic violence and political unrest experienced in Nigeria and the Belgian Congo, respectively, and yet Cleve's compelling story of loss and survival never feels preachy or pedantic. Little Bee is an excellent choice for a book club discussion, perhaps even combined with Kingsolver's novel for comparison.
Further praise from fellow bloggers:
My husband does not drive; therefore, I am always happy when I have to drop him off where there’s bookstore and cup of coffee nearby. Such was my happiness on Saturday, February 21, and I had almost an hour to spend in Barnes & Noble. On my way in, a cover caught my eye: Bright, almost neon orange with two heads in silhouette, and the title in an old script type style. I picked it up, ordered my coffee, and started reading…and stopped just long enough to pay for the book, pick up my husband, and head home to finish the book that same day. (Marcia, from Owl's Feathers)
Wow – this book impressed me a lot. The writing is the kind where I could have easily marked a sentence or paragraph on nearly every page. I really think that at some point I want to go back and re-read this one slowly just to be able to appreciate the many gems. (SuziQ, from Whimpulsive)
In the news: Kidman vying for film rights
Final word? Can I say I loved this before Oprah smacks her logo on the cover and claims it for her book club?! ;)