On Little Bee
"What is an adventure? That depends on where you are starting from. Little girls in your country, they hide in the gap between the washing machine and the refrigerator and they make believe they are in the jungle, with green snakes and monkeys all around them. Me and my sister, we used to hide in a gap in the jungle, with green snakes and monkeys all around us, and make believe that we had a washing machine and a refrigerator. You live in a world of machines and you dream of things with beating hearts. We dream of machines, because we see where beating hearts have left us," (pg. 165).
Chris Cleave, the author of Incendiary, transports readers into two worlds -- one developing, and one developed -- in his second novel, Little Bee. Two strong, unforgettable female characters forge a surprising and unconventional friendship, and serve as narrators for the reader's journey between the two worlds. This is the story of a Nigerian refugee who renamed herself Little Bee, a name intended to keep her safe and free her from the men, guns, fear and bloodshed that characterized her former life, and Sarah, a Surrey girl whose suburban London address and fashion editor job title conceal the flaws and complexity that exist in her seemingly normal, advantaged life. Titled The Other Hand in certain print versions, this novel is about the layers of morality, guilt, love, selflessness, selfishness, and emotional and physical scars that haunt characters so different they discover they share vast common ground.
This book has been discussed and blogged about by so many book clubs and readers since it's publication in 2008, and the inside cover page boasts that it is "soon to be a major motion picture," leaving me, perhaps, with little fresh or noteworthy to say in this review. I initially (and admittedly, somewhat snobbishly) put off reading this book, because it was one of those books everyone was reading and talking about at the time. I was afraid Little Bee wouldn't live up to the initial deafening buzz (no pun intended) that it created when it hit the shelves. Indeed, I do think I enjoyed the reading experience more now, distanced from the early hype, than I would have if I had read it when everyone else was reading it. It is, at times, a beautiful book, especially the chapters told in Little Bee's distinct voice -- a polished hybrid of Queen's English and her native dialect. At other times, it is an infuriating book, one that gets under my skin and that makes me feel angry, disillusioned and torn about the all-too-real inequities that exist in both worlds. Most of the characters, aside from Little Bee and Sarah's four-year-old son, Charlie ("Batman,") walk a fine line between being contemptible and pitiable, and for the most part in my opinion, seem to get what they deserve. Despite Sarah's voice and noble intentions throughout the second half of the novel, it is Little Bee that I feel readers of any background will side with.
For those that have read this book, there is plenty to discuss -- from the political and human rights agenda put forth in the novel, to the more basic moral issues of what is right and what is wrong, and all of the shades of gray that exist in any moment's notice decision. For those who haven't read the book, it is worth the journey if you are interested in a trip that takes a few divergent and unexpected paths, can at times make you uncomfortable in your own industrialized skin, and in the end, leaves you with as many questions as it answers. It is an adventure in two worlds - a world with machines and a world with beating hearts.