The Book Club – Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Welcome to the first virtual book club at Book Allowance. I’m happy to introduce Rebeca Barroso, my partner in crime. We’ll be discussing “Little Bee” by Chris Cleave. The plan is to alternate entries like old-school mail. You remember mail, right? Anyway, we’ll go back and forth until we’ve exhausted the raised topics. There will be spoilers so you’ll just have to deal with that. Here we go!

In Which My Own Point of View Comes Into Question
By Jillian Taylor

Hi, Rebeca!

I’m so pleased you agreed to participate in this virtual book club. A couple of thousand miles separate us so discussing a novel over coffee is virtually impossible. (I should note I hate puns and yet I use them.) We decided on Little Bee based on ease of acquisition, which is not the worst reason to read a book. I actually had passed over the book many, many times in bookstores, choosing instead a different novel I wanted to read. Little Bee sounded interesting; it received high praise – but I moved on. I can get that way sometimes. When a book or a movie is overly hyped, I shy away from getting on board. I still haven’t seen ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ despite the Oscar.

Needless to say, I’m glad we settled on Little Bee. It was worth it and I get the piles of praise heaped on the book and the author. Instead of listing all the awesome things about the book, I want to first bring up structure and narrative voice, and how they both combine to successfully lure the reader into finishing the story.

(In my opinion, a book is successful if I turned every page. Granted, I am willing to abandon ship if a book sucks. Some people find great satisfaction in completing a novel they hated. Not me.)

From the first couple of pages, several curious questions were raised. Who is this narrator, Little Bee, and how did she come to be in a British immigration detention center? What is her real name? Where is her sister Nkiruka? If all the girls’ stories begin with “The men came and they-” then what is Little Bee’s ending? Who does she know in Kingston-upon-Thames and what happened on the beach?

Then, with chapter two, the first person narration changes to Sarah. We learn her husband Andrew is the man Little Bee called from the detention center and he is dead. We learn that Andrew’s depression began two years prior when they met Little Bee on a Nigerian beach. We learn Sarah lost her middle finger that same meeting.

It was at this point that I started to get excited. So many questions and such interesting ones at that. How did Sarah lose her finger? What happened that sent Andrew spiraling down into depression? What the hell happened on that beach?

This technique made me wonder if Little Bee was secretly a mystery. Not in the traditional sense of murder on page one ending with clever reveal at the end. But a mystery like an unfolding. I kept turning the pages because I didn’t know when I was going to learn everything I so desperately wanted to learn.

I was surprised at how quickly the story of what happened on the beach was revealed. I thought that would be a longer tease to maintain interest. Once Little Bee told Sarah her side and the narrative slid into Sarah’s memory, I realized the structure of the novel influenced the decision to explain that significant moment in both of their lives so early.

Because the first half of the novel is about the past; the present action is woven with memories and explanations about everything that lead up to the intersection of their lives. The second half of the book is the future: what you do when the past catches up with you, confronts you, grabs your shoulders and shakes you until you pay attention. The plot becomes more linear, more chronological, as Sarah and Little Bee must deal with the consequences of that fateful day.

The questions raised in early chapters got me to the middle so that when the plot changed to more present action, I was always invested in the characters and ready to see it to the end. Very clever, Cleave.

The chapters toggle between the two female narrators. I am always a little wary of authors attempting to write in first person of the opposite gender. I think of Donna Tartt’s male narrator in The Secret History who I constantly forgot was a young man. Then I force myself to remember that one of my favorite female characters was created by Wally Lamb; her adolescent voice could have been mine.

The first chapter especially threw me. Not only is the narrator female, but the narrator is a Nigerian girl who has learned the Queen’s English. Sad to say but I have no way of knowing if the forays into hypothetical conversations with girls back in Nigeria or the actual dialogue with Yvette of Jamaica is portrayed accurately. My personal concern over the accuracy was really my discomfort with having no touch point to relate to Little Bee in a cultural way. The more I read, the more I understood her as a woman and as an outsider but I’m still not truly confident I understand the word weh.

As a writer myself, I find accents a daunting task. I know how I talk. I know how the people around me talk. But writing phonetic dialogue to capture the essence of an accent? Scary. To be honest, I was relieved to learn that Cleave used dictionaries to get a handle on Nigerian and Jamaican dialect. I want to trust what writers write but I also understand that the point of fiction is to make things up and that we can’t always “write what we know.”

So, Rebeca, how did you feel about the accents and the first person narrators? Did the binary structure of past and future come up in your reading? Did you even like the novel? (The most basic question of all.)

I’ll wrap up this letter here. I could go into my faith in fiction as a way to impart truth and difficult topics in a way a newspaper article never could. Or how I kind of have some problems with the trip back to Africa – well, maybe those problems are actually with Sarah and her naïveté. But we’ll get to that later.

Weh!
Jillian

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