Review of “Little Bee” by Chris Cleave

Note: No spoilers are contained in this review.

It is an unfortunately common occurrence in history. People are slated for extermination – because of politics or war or prejudice or greed – and they have nowhere to go. There is no escape. Other countries don’t want them, again because of politics or war or prejudice or greed. But they are desperate. They will take any risk, brave any consequences, to escape. And what happens when they are discovered seeking asylum in another country? In many cases they are sent back, to fates that can seem worse than death.

It will not reveal the plot to note that Nigerians have been seeking asylum in great numbers at least since 2003 because of a war to control the country’s vast oil resources. HRW (Human Rights Watch) has documented acts of brutal violence and a profound climate of fear and insecurity in affected areas.

Cleave begins his tale of Little Bee – a young girl from Nigeria who had the misfortune to live in a village directly on top of a rich oil field – in a British detention center for illegal immigrants. This is where those who escape to Britain without “papers” were sent, lest they be a “drain” on society. [It should be noted here that not all of the people who go to other countries illegally are refugees in fear of their lives. No matter who they are or why they are there, however, there are serious lapses of oversight in terms of how they are treated, and how their cases get evaluated. See for example, this collection of articles in the New York Times about mistreatment in detention centers.]

Little Bee has been in the (fictitious, but representative) UK detention center for two years, since she was fourteen. Four of the girls are abruptly told they are able to leave, and they can call for a taxi. Little Bee calls a number she has been carrying with her for two years, that of Andrew and Sarah O’Rourke in Kingston-upon-Thames.

From thence forward, the story alternates between the voices of Little Bee and Sarah O’Rourke. They tell the stories of their lives, and how they happened to be interconnected. We also hear a great deal from Charlie, Sarah’s little boy, who likes to dress as Batman and divides the world into “baddies” and “goodies,” so he can vanquish the former and protect the latter. In one sense Charlie serves as a bit of comic relief, but in another he is like a Greek chorus, offering commentary on the plotline.

In the course of the story, you learn about the circumstances by which Little Bee got to know the O’Rourkes, how she got to the immigration center, and what her fate will be. And you also get a look at how different people in the UK react to her situation.

Although – especially without a lot of information on what the story is about – you might suspect this of being a bleeding heart story, it is not so at all. None of the “goodies” are in fact all good; nor are the “baddies” all bad (although some of them come pretty close). But the facts that Cleave brings to your attention about Nigeria and about detention centers are undeniably true, and that’s what I believe you will take away from this story. It’s yet another good reminder of how truly fortunate we are in the West.

Evaluation: I didn’t get as emotionally invested in this story as I thought I might. I think part of the problem was with the author’s portrayal of the Nigerians who preyed on innocent villagers; they seemed much too caricatured to be real for me. Little Bee herself seemed too emotionally competent, although I suppose one would grow up fast in her situation. Or she could have been so phlegmatic because of shock or denial: reasonably believable coping mechanisms. But as a result, I didn’t really feel her pain. I wouldn’t want to have to go through another experience like reading The Blue Notebook, in which the pain just sears into you, but I think something in the middle would have been better for this book. Cleave has an important story to share, and I think it could have had more impact.

The prose is often lovely, and there are some wonderfully trenchant observations on marriage and morality that I am reluctant to quote since they would amount to plot spoilers. This is a thought-provoking book, and has much in it that would generate discussion for book clubs. Many of you will consider, as I did, what you would have done in circumstances similar to those faced by Sarah and Andrew.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2009

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20 Responses to Review of “Little Bee” by Chris Cleave

  1. Julie P. says:

    I was afraid to read your review because I respect your opinion so much and I was worried that you wouldn’t like it! I loved this book, although I agree that I didn’t get as fully vested in the characters as I do with some books. I don’t know that it mattered for me because I just loved how thought provoking this book was!

  2. diane says:

    This story really hook me big time. I loved it. Sorry you were not as excited about i as me.

  3. Steph says:

    I think this is one that I’m going to try to get to sooner rather than later because it does sound like it offers a perspective that I’m not used to encountering in my fiction. I have heard raves about this book, but I appreciated that you were able to articulate what failed to allow you to fully connect with it; I think it will better prepare me for when I read it myself!

  4. Ti says:

    I’m impressed that you were able ot review this book without spoilers. I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews so it’s nice to see a different perspective.

    I don’t know if I am jaded or what but whenever a book gets a lot of hype, I almost feel as if it’s my duty to find the flaws and I usually do. It’s just so rare that a book is perfect in every way. I get the feeling that you are the same way.

  5. kiss a cloud says:

    I also felt the book’s flaws and still loved it. But what really stood out for me, and what I remember most, was the humor in the beginning of the book, with Little Bee and the other girls. I just loved their conversations. Too funny.

  6. Margot says:

    I like your non-spoiler review. I’ll bet that was hard to do. I’ve seen lots of reviews for this book but I haven’t wanted to read it for fear it would hurt too much. But, if you say it’s possible to read it without becoming emotionally invested, I may give it a chance.

  7. Staci says:

    I loved your thoughts on this one. I rated it a top read for last year. The story drew me in and I couldn’t put the book down. What would I do??? I still don’t have the answer to that one…

  8. Nymeth says:

    This is one of those cases in which I’m glad to see a less than completely gushy review… very high expectations can kill a book for me, so though I definitely plan to read this, I want to go into it without expecting too much.

  9. bermudaonion says:

    I actually did read this for my book club and I think we had the best discussion ever over it. I loved it and others felt about like you did – on one hated it though.

  10. Sandy says:

    It seems many loved this book, and some thought it was somewhere in the middle of the road. I’m intrigued enough to read it. I convinced my mom to buy the book in Maui for the trip home, so I could read it after her! I love your reviews…they are always so thoughtful and elegant.

  11. Jenners says:

    I just got this from Paperback Swap to rad due to reviews from somewhere in the blogophere … obviously not yours. I’ll probably give a try someday but maybe won’t rush into it.

  12. Julie says:

    I’m currently listening to this one. I’m really enjoying it, but a huge part of my enjoyment is the actual reading of it. The narrator is really helping to make the characters come alive. Althought I haven’t listened to a ton, this is by far the best reading of an audio book that I’ve heard thus far. I keep wondering how I would feel if I were reading instead of listening to it. This is the one audio book that I feel I might have a very different opinion of if I took the other option. I’m a little more than half way and anxious to listen to the rest. Thanks for your thoughts!

  13. Colleen says:

    I have been eyeing this book for awhile – thanks for your review! I feel like I read very few books about Africa and if this book does nothing more than raise my awareness of the political situation in Nigeria it will be worthwhile!

  14. JoAnn says:

    I also listened to the audio version – it was extremely well done! The reader was amazing. At times her voice imparted a detached, almost dreamlike quality that really added to the story (probably made it more enjoyable than reading). My rating was slightly higher than yours.

  15. Thanks for the honest assessment. Sounds like an interesting story. Maybe I’ll give it a try at some point.

    –Anna

  16. Lisa says:

    Seems like this one has been receiving nothing but praise–which always makes me wonder. There aren’t very many books for which there isn’t some flaw. Thank you for the honest assessment. I’ve ordered this one and am still looking forward to reading it but will go in with a much more realistic expectation.

  17. Alyce says:

    It is good to see your take on this book as I think it accurately reflects how I think I would react to the book. I’m still keeping it in mind because I’ve heard so many good things about it, and I’m glad that it wasn’t as hard to read as The Blue Notebook (which I didn’t read specifically because of the reviews all said it was so painful).

  18. April says:

    I’ve heard such great things about this book. I’ve had it in my TBR pile forever and really need to get it out and read it!!

  19. Doret says:

    I didn’t care much for Little Bee. I agree with your thoughts on it. I thought the scene that no one can talk about is built up too much.

    The author kept refering to it so I expected more.

    I didn’t like how Sarah always seemed to be in need of Little Bee to support her emotional needs. Every time Little Bee did something to make Sarah feel better, I though what about Little Bee? When is someone going to take a moment to make her feel better.

  20. huz says:

    I loved Little Bee but hated the book. Anytime I invest my time to read a story, I expect it to have an ending. It doesn’t have to have a happy one, but it does need to end. To me, this story felt like I had gotten to the climax of a movie and then the electricity went off. Disappointing after you have made that kind of investment in the characters.

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