The Book Club – Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Welcome to the second installment of the first virtual book club at Book Allowance. The book is “Little Bee” by Chris Cleave. I’m happy to introduce Rebeca Barroso, my partner in crime. 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 may be spoilers.

When the italics stop . . .
By Rebeca Barroso

Hi, Jilly!

Indeed, a couple of thousand miles sadly do separate us, but discussing a novel over coffee is, though literally impossible, thankfully, virtually quite possible. At least, I’m having coffee, aren’t you?

I hadn’t heard the hype over Little Bee, but when I saw it was the same author as Incendiary, I thought I should give it a chance. I didn’t read it, but the film was rather good. In fact, knowing this book will be made into a film soon, too, colored the way I saw the characters, but that’s not relevant.

Structure and narrative voice. You are right Jilly, the author did a great job of establishing many questions for whose answers I, as a reader, kept turning the pages. And with every new page I found the plot thickened even further and even more questions were unanswered and complications arose for which I needed resolutions, and I kept reading on.

However, more than that –and my curiosity really is the driving force behind most of the things I pursue – what kept me turning page after page wasn’t chasing after the answers. In fact, I even wondered if he’d be successful in meeting the impossibly high expectations of the atrocious events that my imagination was already concocting about what happened in the beach. I once saw a documentary on the making of Jaws and they said its true success was to have the plastic shark break down and be useless for the shots because in horror, true terror comes from never showing you what happens, but to give you a whiff of it and then let you imagine the rest. I was very apprehensive about the chapter where I would no longer wonder but be presented with what actually happened at that beach. (He did, though, absolutely portray with amazing efficacy the truly horrific events at the beach without falling short of expectations, but we can discuss that in another installment.)

Anyway, the true force behind my turning the pages… I was quietly enveloped by the lyrical rhythm of Little Bee’s voice and her amazing awareness of color. I was mesmerized. I was feeling the temperatures, touching the textures, smelling the scents, immersed in the dream-like hues, the tone of every single sentence… the visuals are very powerful and the language so melodic…

Sarah’s voice wasn’t quite as hypnotic but that’s not a flaw in the book, it’s what makes Sarah the classic white-bread Englishwoman from the suburbs. In my opinion the author did a great job of speaking from a female POV in both women, with the color of the Nigerian girl’s culture and language and the blandness of the Surrey girl’s sheltered life.

I felt the alternating from the melodic and colorful narrative of Little Bee to the more antiseptic narrative of Sarah was like coming in and out of reality, from flashback to present, from Nigeria to England, from another world to this one, from dreaming to waking.

Little Bee’s speech was believable to me. I don’t know anyone from Nigeria, but her use of English resembles very closely the speech, usage and cadence I’ve experienced with friends from Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and Somalia. The Jamaican was dead-on, too. And as much as accents can be misused and really pull you out of a narrative when they don’t work, these actually helped my experience and involvement, not unlike Alexander McCall Smith’s in his novels (another white guy successfully writing from the POV of an African woman). Though I too had a bit of an issue with the word weh. Couldn’t quite find out how to express it.

As a matter of fact, I was relying on the accents so much to switch from one narrator to another, that at some point, Little Bee’s Queen’s English is so devoid of Nigerian italics that I didn’t notice I was reading her, until several paragraphs in. When I realized I had been reading in Sarah’s voice a chapter belonging to Little Bee, I had to start over. I felt a little bit cheated.

Yes, I loved the novel. I enjoy non-linear storylines, so the structure of the flashbacks intersected with the present were very welcome. I also particularly enjoy watching (again, I have a movie-oriented brain) how the first and second acts give way to the third act (i.e., how facts are established, then conflict introduced to upset the natural order of things, before arriving to a resolution).

I like the way you put it: “What you do when the past catches up with you, confronts you, grabs your shoulders and shakes you until you pay attention.” You can only run so far. Eventually you’re gonna have to stop running, turn around, face it, stand up to whatever it is, solve it and put an end to it. Most people think there are no consequences to “not doing anything about it” but there are as many sins of omission and enough damage done out of neglect as there is harm in action. I like that message in this book.

Yes, it’s all about the collision of these people in that beach, all those years ago, but more than that, I particularly found one place poignant, when both stories intertwine in a way I hadn’t expected. Little Bee says all the stories start out with the-men-came-and-they… and we’re told a string of horror stories of third world tragedy and young girls and abusive soldiers… but… then you realize even Sarah’s story, in the present day, for a mature woman in the first world, is starting with Lawrence showing up at her door. Very literally, the man came and he… it sent shivers down my spine to realize at that moment how very present and real Little Bee’s constant terror was, how silently and gently and innocently “he” can come (not always setting fire to a town or ravaging and destructing) and why she was always (in the best dark humor possible, which I appreciated) looking for ways to kill herself, even while having tea with the Queen in Buckingham Palace, in case the men came and they… But this is where we can pick up about Sarah and her naïveté, which was an issue for me, as well. Was this innocence/stupidity necessary to drive the plot, or are British middle-class suburban housewives generally this thick?

I was also curious why you didn’t even mention Batman. Charlie is in every chapter except the first, has a distinct language usage all of his own, there’s the duality of his identity and the safety of the costume, plus he’s the only element that finally delivers Little Bee to her fate (I had to choose these past few words very carefully in case we are not giving away endings or spoilers). Any thoughts on why Batman/Charlie is at all a character (with so many particular details) necessary to the narrative, when Sarah and Andrew could have been childless?


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One thought on “The Book Club – Little Bee by Chris Cleave

  1. As a Jamaican, I can assure you that Cleave's Jamaican accent (patois) is terrible. It was so bad, I almost put the book down. I decided instead to write him and tell him to fix it so he can be true to the character. It was a mix between slave narrative, ebonics, Jamaican patios, and a few other carribean dialects. To begin, you don't use “gonna”, “ain't”, “we got”,”Lil”, “me” “dockerment” in Patios. There are several Jamaican Patios dictionaries on the internet. Look it up for yourself if you don't believe me. Any Jamaican could have proofed this once and told him that. It is upsetting that he used one dictionary to help translate such a rich and complex dialect.


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