Feb 14, 2009

Little Bee by Chris Cleave - review

Little Bee
by Chris Cleave
Bond Street Books, 288 pages, $29.95

In 2005, in a shocking coincidence, Chris Cleave’s debut novel, Incendiary, concerning a terrorist attack in London, was released on the exact same day as the infamous London bomb attacks. It was a powerful quirk of fate that somewhat overshadowed the novel’s very real accomplishments.

While uneven, Incendiary displayed a promising talent, especially in the British author’s evocation of incomprehensible loss in the shape of his unnamed narrator, a mother who lost her husband and son in the attack. Incendiary went on to win the 2006 Somerset Maugham Award and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Cleave’s sophomore effort, Little Bee, has already been released in the U.K. (under the title The Other Hand) to resounding acclaim, and showcases his true gift at creating complex, realistic characters who are, regrettably, far stronger than the storyline they inhabit. For, despite the plaudits, Little Bee also abundantly displays what is shaping up to be Cleave’s Achilles heel in his stories; the weakness of his narrative framework.

Little Bee concerns two women, Little Bee and Sarah O’Rourke. Bee is a young Nigerian refugee who has spent two years in a British immigration removal centre. Bee has taught herself English, and as she asserts, “I am here to tell you a real story…I am a born-again citizen of the developing world.”

After Bee escapes, she tracks down Sarah, a British woman whom she met on a Nigerian beach under horrific circumstances. It would not do to spoil the entirety of the events, but as Bee tells it, each scream of her sister “was exactly the same, like a machine was making them.”

As with Incendiary, Cleave has taken great pains to ensure that Little Bee occurs in a world torn from today’s newspaper headlines. The removal centres of Britain are a disgraceful blight on the country’s reputation in the world, and they very much deserve dissection and examination.

Likewise, Little Bee proves Cleave excels at characterization. As was revealed in Incendiary’s protagonist (a woman who lost her husband and child in a terrorist bombing, and one of the finest, most fully-realized characters in recent fiction), Bee and Sarah are well-formed and intriguing women, full-bodied and breathing on the page.

Yet for all Cleave’s strengths, there is something inherently phony and overly calculated about Little Bee’s overall presentation. Despite it’s adherence to the realities of life in both England and Nigeria, and the contrast between the affluent British versus the desperate third-world refugees, there is a strained, crowd-pleasing aspect to the narrative that becomes increasingly off-putting. As with Incendiary, the plot often strains credulity in order to bring people together, allowing for convenient secondary characters who have connections to elements beyond the main protagonists' reach. As the coincidences clumsily pile up, it becomes readily apparent that Cleave may tenderly wield a scalpel with his characters, but he takes a sledgehammer approach to plot.

Too often, Cleave’s characters mouth platitudes such as “At some point you just have to turn around and face your life head-on,” and “Trouble is like the ocean. It covers two-thirds of the world.” Such truisms idealize Bee into an almost messianic figure of willful innocence, and undermine the novel’s efforts to portray the stark realism of her existence.

The didactic nature of Little Bee may serve to make the novel a staple of undemanding book clubs. The novel is eminently readable, populated by easy-to-like people, and culminating in an ending both tragic and feel-good.

Little Bee strives to be both hardened and heart-warming, gruesome yet quirky. There are ample qualities to recommend it as a worthwhile read, but Cleave’s lightweight packaging of his tale has to be considered a disappointment.

1 comment:

christine said...

I was initially charmed by Little Bee's voice but by the end of the book was hugely disappointed. (I was sighing loudly by the end.) As you say, the coincidences are unbelievable. I was also increasingly irritated by the gulf that separated the plot from plausibility: the big encounter on the beach, with the finger-chopping, was simply unbelievable in so many ways. And the fact that Little Bee strays so far from an authentic voice, too. I'm pretty sure that a young, haunted girl from a small village in Nigeria would be unlikely to say "Are you sure you're OK?" when referring to another character's emotions. All of the characters were speaking the theme by two-thirds of the way through the book.

It could have been a great book with some restraint and a stronger editing pen, but it's not. I'm shocked to find so many reviewers falling over themselves about it. Any reader with a modicum of literary sophistication will find it trying indeed.

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