The Book Club – Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Welcome to the third 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 so you’ll just have to deal with that.

Coffee and a rant
By Jillian Taylor

Good morning, Beq!

I have a warm cup of joe next to me as I read your response and I refuse to wait until later today to write back. Work will have to wait.

Your comments on color (or colour in this instance) are fascinating. You’re right – there is a lyricism to Little Bee’s narrative voice and she is very visual and tactile. Even the clothes she wears leaving the detention center – a garish Hawaiian shirt, for instance – are significantly brighter than the gray Kingston sky. And Sarah has her wrap up in a black trench when Little Bee escorts her to Andrew’s funeral. No bright colors allowed. (I’ve never liked that tradition, by the way. Many colors display grief, not just black.)

Speaking of which, did you enjoy Little Bee’s comments on gray – the color of refugees? I loved it. One of my favorite sections. I also loved her idea of the refugee flag being any article of clothing that could be spared such as a bra stained gray with use and washings. That would be a fun flag to post outside the U.N.

Little Bee’s voice does change throughout the story. Could this be on purpose? Leaving the detention center, immersing herself in Sarah’s life, actually going out in the world to London – this exposure might test her lingual abilities and push her to be more British, less Nigerian. Or did Cleave just forget to maintain her distinctive voice? Despite all the editors who touch a novel, things get missed.

My brother told me something a directing professor once told him. A director can take credit for every good thing his actors do on stage – even if they go against what the director actually wanted them to do. If it works, good for him. A director must also accept the inverse: that every failing of his actors is his fault as well.

All this to say I can’t tell if the tonal change is on purpose. I want to say yes because I like to think all writers are aware of what they do and very purposeful. But I know things just happen sometimes.

Regarding bland little Sarah, yeah, I got the same impression: bland, a bit clueless, restless in her perfectly fine life, clinging to a cause that wasn’t even originally her flag to bear. I didn’t dislike her but I found it hard to like her. Sarah isn’t as sympathetic a character as Little Bee. Granted, Little Bee is running from a terrible past full of violence and loss, and she’s a nice girl so it’s easy to be sympathetic. But Sarah gets all those chapters to herself, her voice. She needed to evoke more for me to earn that space in the story.

Naïve is a great word for Sarah. I don’t want to sound cynical but her character and parts of Little Bee were a bit stock for me. A white well-to-do woman is confronted with atrocity in the world when a black child comes into her life (Blind Side, anyone?) and she wants to save the child and the world as well, if she has the time. When I read that again it does sound pretty cynical, doesn’t it?

I understand that many people (I’ll include myself in this group) go through life with a mild set of blinders on until/if something jumps in front of them and they have to deal with it. Maybe some people push past the issue and refuse to partake in addressing it. Others decide to act. And I know we need people in the world who act, who want to make things better. It all just sounds a little familiar. What saves the story for me was Little Bee’s voice so it was a loss for me as well when I realized I hadn’t pondered the meaning of weh in many pages.

I do think Sarah’s naïveté and Little Bee’s Anglicization are necessary for the plot. Sarah is morally ambiguous, what with her long-standing affair and single act of selflessness that saved Little Bee’s life. She is modern and relatable and has her head in the ground a bit. Which totally allows Little Bee to drag her out into the sun and creates the space for Sarah to grow and change. Little Bee’s change – her elevated language, her ability to be self-sufficient and navigate through England – makes her return to Nigeria feel even more backward. She is forced back into the past she is desperately running from. The novel contains one binary of opposites after the other.

And Charlie/Batman is the obvious metaphor for the main point of all the opposites – one must claim their identity to the fullest and not shy away. A little heavy for a five year-old boy but there you have it. I was charmed by Charlie’s insistence on wearing his Batman costume every day, all day. Batman doesn’t get to take a day off. His world is defined by goodies and baddies, not the worst guiding philosophy if you ask me. Children are used in storytelling as vehicles of innocent truth. They state the obvious. They say what they mean. Asking Lawrence if he is a goodie or a baddie with Lawrence sputtering for an answer demonstrates the moral ambiguities adults flounder in. To Charlie it’s simple – good or bad.

The only question I had is about the impetus that got Charlie’s superhero identity started. That wasn’t ever addressed. Maybe it didn’t need to be but I was curious since it began before Andrew committed suicide.

Is Charlie that which delivers Little Bee to her fate or is unmasking him and saving him her final act of grace? Part of me blames Sarah for the ending, even though Little Bee became a willing participant and was the one who wanted to go back to the beach that started this chain of events. Yes, Charlie runs to Little Bee which brings the attention to her. But Little Bee only thinks of saving him and gets him to remove his entire costume before plunging into the ocean with a crowd of other children, safe in numbers. I know I’m dancing around this and that’s because I don’t know the answer yet. I have mixed feelings about the final chapter.

On a related note, can I tell you how much the entire trip back to Nigeria pisses me off? (We are totally going full steam ahead. Don’t worry about spoilers.) Why would she take her young son to Nigeria when she knows what is going on there? When she was on the beach two years earlier, Sarah had been pleased her son was back in England and with her parents. She recognized that her parents would take care of him and raise him well and this brought her relief in a moment when she faced with death.

So she just brings him on the plane to a country that wants to kill Little Bee for seeing too much? And now Sarah is a hard-core journalist, dragging her son and Little Bee around to get more stories from other Nigerians who saw too much? I have no problem with Sarah waving the banner but don’t drag your five year-old son around a dangerous country so you can complete your dead husband’s work and feel better about yourself.

Maybe they should have been childless. Then Sarah wouldn’t be able to drag her child around a war-torn country.

I’m not bitter. I promise. I’ll stop here before this rant goes any further but will say that the presence of Charlie heightens the stakes for Sarah and Little Bee while allowing the author to have a voice of truth. A literary device but put to good use in the story, at least until the end.

Shall we discuss the beach?

Here’s hoping the men came and only brought you more coffee.

Jillian

Click here to see all installments.

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