by Chris Cleave
Almost a year ago now, a friend of mine ask me excitedly whether or not I had read Little Bee. “What’s it about?” “I can’t tell you much about it … ‘something’ horrible happens on a beach in Nigeria to a little girl … that’s all I can say.” As her voice kept sliding down a register, my first impression was “Meh! I sure don’t need another one of those horrific scenes to wade through to get to an even more depressing story.” Over the past several months, one or two others have mentioned Little Bee in the same hush-hush manner. I put it on my wish list. I took it off my wish list. And then–book club chose it for our April read. And so I was now stuck.
Even the blurb on the book’s cover played the secrecy game: “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.” Let me say first off, that the “something horrible” is not as horrible as it could have been. Oh, it’s awful, no doubt about it–but it didn’t warrant, I don’t think, all the secrecy. In fact, one of the “somethings” relates to a white couple, which surprised me. Other than that, I think I will also continue the embargo on the something horrible, although I probably should insert my standard [spoiler alert] here.
Little Bee is, indeed, a young woman buzzing with purpose and drive and single-mindedness, carrying a load on her slight shoulders that no one should have to bear.The sadness that trailed behind her in a yellow cloud was heavy, thick, and sweet. I believed Little Bee and I loved her, and all her imaginary conversations with the village girls, and her clipped, precise English, laden with idiom and insight. The woman she met on the beach in Nigeria, however, was another story. Sarah was an entrepreneur (nothing wrong with that) who cheated on her husband (uh-oh), and went to a Nigerian beach resort to repair her marriage (that’s better …)–then continued (and seemingly without guilt) to continue the affair upon their return. I found her amorality off-putting. While Little Bee is the one haunted by the death of Sarah’s husband Andrew, I think it is Sarah herself who had an active hand in his death. In my mind her only redeeming quality was the action she took on the beach that fateful day. And unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to earn her salvation in my book. Even her attempt to do right by Little Bee at the book’s end didn’t ring true.
Little Bee almost demanded I read it in the few hours I did; it was a quick and, overall, satisfying read. I did find fault in the sometimes shallow characters and their superficial lives–I wonder if it was intentional that these were the white characters? But Little Bee herself was was fully alive, pulsing with energy and vitality.
Next up: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. I had read two glowing reviews of Finkler and waited anxiously for it to arrive. Seventy-five pages in I’m starting to feel a little grumpy as I always do when a book disappoints–the story doesn’t add up, the characters aren’t at all appealing, and I’m a’gettin’ cranky …