Little Bee

DISCLAIMER:  This accidentally posted for a few hours LAST Friday because, well, I screwed up the date when I scheduled it.  My bad.  I do apologize if you’ve read my review already.  With any luck I’ll have a classic tale up for review next week.  If you were fortunate enough to NOT have seen it post last week – enjoy!

I borrowed this book from my local library after reading Kristin’s review a while back.  My curiosity continued to be piqued when I perused the summary on the flap which, to my way of thinking, truly built up the mystery of the big event that occurred two years prior to the book’s beginning.  Admittedly I have a hard time breaking ranks and giving a synopsis of it out of respect for the author’s (or his publishing house’s) marketing:

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 on fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face…

There’s more, of course, but that’s what I read before I opened the pages.  The women involved seem to have little in common with each other.  The first is an African girl from Nigeria who has, at the beginning of the story, immigrated to Britain and is now being released from the detention center.  She knows no one in the country, her family had all died in Africa before she smuggled herself into a ship’s cargo hold and went to the UK, except the woman who was forced to make a difficult choice.  This other creature, a woman who makes a remarkable decision, is a middle class British woman who had been on holiday with her husband in Nigeria at the time of their first meeting.

Cleave’s prose through out is very fluid, unique and quite remarkable (the opening paragraph):

Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl.  Everyone would be pleased to see me coming.  Maybe I would visit with you for the weekend and then suddenly, because I am fickle like that, I would visit with the man from the corner shop instead – but you would not be sad because you would be eating a cinnamon bun, or drinking a cold Coca-Cola from the can, and you would never think of me again.  We would be happy, like lovers who met on holiday and forgot each other’s names.

I was hooked on the first paragraph, but by the time I got to the halfway point I was annoyed.  The narrative flips between the two women’s view points, (which I have no problem with) and is constantly burdened with a huge back story.  As a reader you need to know the past, it’s integral to the story, but every few paragraphs I’d find myself thrust back into the character’s reveries.  Add to that the knowledge you are reading something being told presently but ALL you’re being informed of happened already.  So, the characters are somewhere in time while doing the telling of these events that occur two years after a major traumatic event while also talking about the recollections they have about said traumatic event.

I do not know if it was the author’s intent to keep the reader at arms length from these women’s emotional plights, or if he simply wanted to make a few implied points about the problems with the immigration system in Britain, the politics of British interests in foreign lands, or what have you, I can only say I walked away not feeling particularly enlightened and not caring about the characters.  Again, the language used was superior to many other books I’ve read recently, but the prose choice left me feeling kinda bad I couldn’t drum up a few tears when I finally found out about what happened in Nigeria.  Note I did not say I felt bad about what happened in Nigeria, for that I actually still felt like shrugging even though I *knew* it was a big deal, Cleave never let me feel how momentous the choice was, nor truly feel the issues that were created for each character as a result of that meeting.  Instead it was told from each character’s perspective as a narrative, not describing the anxiety, the anger and the fear they experienced.  The beginning, however, does require tissues, and it was a stronger narration and exceptional scene building that left me feeling racked with pain for the characters.  I truly wish Cleave had maintained that through out the work. Beyond the first two chapters, however, my heart ceased being invested in the work and, when the story is so wrought with emotional events, I can’t help but feel disappointed.

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10 responses to “Little Bee

  • Joanne

    I haven’t read this book, or othe one in the previous post. But in both it sounds like the author didn’t really succeed in making, and keeping, that connection with the reader. If we’re not connected, we’re not vested in the characters and so lose interest.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Well said, Joanne. I found it so frustrating I didn’t care by the end – I really wanted to. I also can’t help but reflect and think hype and book jacket sound bytes only lead me to be disappointed. This doesn’t matter so much for classics, but for the modern pieces of literature I’ve read lately these things only do them a disservice.

  • jessicabookworm

    I don’t think I’ll be hunting this book down. When you started with the premise it sounded great but however good the premise I won’t be hooked if I can’t connect with the characters. Really interesting review all the same though, its a book and author I’ve never heard of before.

    • kimberlyloomis

      I can’t fault you on it. The prose was so beautiful and so promising, but when the sucker punches kept getting made it sullied the work and encouraged a greater distance due to the knowledge the technique would continue. In some ways it reminded me of “Elegance of the Hedgehog” – well, at least one of the last chapters. A distance took place, taking you out of the moment and the intensity and smack in the middle of the cerebral manifestations of recollection.

  • Helen Ginger

    This reminds me so much of the manuscript I’m editing now. I’ve having to make notes to the writer about the overload of back story and the distance created between the characters and the reader.

    You want to invest in the characters, but you can’t if there’s a wall there.

    Helen
    Straight From Hel

    • kimberlyloomis

      I totally agree with you, Helen. Perhaps this doesn’t bother some people, but for me it gets tedious. The author is so obviously gifted, as was demonstrated to me in the funeral sequence at the beginning of the book, but that talent couldn’t make an element of two years prior so the same thing by very virtue of how he chose to tell it. That wall, as you said, was erected.

  • lyndalepress

    Thanks for the review — it’s so interesting cause I finished this book on the 9th (the day you posted) and had a completely different reaction — I loved it! Hoping to have some thoughts up on it soon.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Look forward to your review! It’s very interesting to see what works/doesn’t work for others in literature. 🙂

  • Random Observations in Reading « The Perpetual Writer

    […] well, the whole four chapters I’ve read, is in the past tense.  The same thing happened with Little Bee – most of it was written in past tense […]

  • Saving CeeCee Honeycutt « The Perpetual Writer

    […] very nonuniform usage of such phrases, like Bronte did with Jane Eyre or even Chris Cleave did in Little Bee, I came to the conclusion that this was merely something not caught by an editor or the author had […]

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