The Book Club – Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Welcome to 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.

Can Sarah Ever Learn?

by Rebeca Barroso

Hi, Jilly!

Yes, even grey, which to me is an absolute absence of color (more than white or black), was beautifully expressed for all things bleak. As for the refugee bra-flag… best. idea. ever!

I still can’t make up my mind whether Little Bee’s English gets better as proof of her own evolution and time spent in England, or due to a more relaxed state of mind of the author towards the end of his novel as he paid less attention to the narrative voice while concentrating more on the resolution of the plot.

Same goes for Sarah’s character. Was she that grey in purpose, or due to a lack of color poured more enthusiastically into Little Bee? I want to think she needs to be this naïve because otherwise we wouldn’t have conflict. If someone else would have been married to Andrew we wouldn’t be reading about his wife having an affair, and then it being so blatantly discovered, which then needed to be patched up with a trip to… a war-torn African country (seriously? Freebies from Nigeria to a glossy magazine??) and they wouldn’t have been arguing about their right to wander freely against an armed guard, etc etc. But, let’s put all that behind us.

I’m interested in discussing how much of a coward Sarah wants us to believe Andrew was (Then –and it was louder than the surf- there was the sound of my husband sobbing.) because he didn’t do anything in the beach, because he wouldn’t cut his finger, because he got depressed and because he committed suicide, while she is the brave one because she did in fact cut her own finger without having been asked and then proudly displays it like some badge of merit to people who don’t even notice it (the policemen who come to tell her Andrew is dead, for instance) or when throwing a tantrum with Lawrence (She banged her damaged hand down on the table, fingers splayed out. “I cut off my finger for that girl. Will you tell me when is the logical point to stop something that started like that? Do you really want me to make a choice like that? I cut off my own bloody finger. Do you think I wouldn’t cut you off too?” – If this isn’t unnecessarily over-the-top, I don’t know what is), or how she uses it as a constant reminder that rubs itself in Andrew’s face whenever he’s having his own internal struggles.

When, in the end… we find out Andrew is quietly working towards publishing something that might help more than a severed finger can, and was so tormented by his own helplessness that it drove him to despair, when Sarah tends to be the one to drown in a glass of water when she can’t quite decide which tights to wear with which shoes or when the real lemons were gone and she had to squirt artificial juice in her gin and tonic. The horror!

But even more infuriating is the false sense of confidence she genuinely has – assuring Little Bee that she can protect her because she “works in a magazine and knows people” or because she’s a white reporter with money in Nigeria – even after having had the finger-cutting experience in that beach two years ago. Did you learn nothing, woman?? Where is your evolution??

As for Charlie/Batman, yeah, we never find out why he started wearing the bat costume but it was definitely before Andrew died. In fact, that morning he was made to take off his costume and he feels responsible. The day Batman took a day off, his daddy died. And the scene at the funeral… when Charlie realizes Andrew is in the coffin and will be buried… oh my god. I haven’t read anything that heartbreakingly painful in a long time. The tears just kept streaming down, I couldn’t read through the tears but I couldn’t stop either reading or crying, I was absolutely gripped.

You know, I really think Charlie delivered Little Bee to her fate. It’s his disappearance that brings the police, which is what makes her illegal status be known and gets her processed and deported. And it’s his running towards her, at the beach, putting himself in mortal danger, that ultimately makes her sacrifice herself for him.

I know you got what the author was trying to convey, but I fail to see what unmasking him has anything to do with saving him as a final act of grace. In fact, she goes on about how happy he looks with the other kids and what joy, etc, but all I could think was, that’s gonna be some fucked up kid when he grows up. Depressed, suicidal dad, deranged, imbalanced mom, selfish quasi-step-dad, murdered babysitter… this guy is gonna need medication before grade school.

And definitely blame Sarah, the whole trip pisses me off too. I totally agree, what the hell is she thinking taking Charlie there? Again, did you learn nothing woman? And didn’t you just promise him in the bridge when he got lost that you’d take good care of him now? “I’ll never be so silly again.” Is this really the best not-so-silly idea you can come up with?

You said it perfectly: “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. And 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.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

At least I can understand Little Bee’s need to visit the beach. As silly or as dangerous as it may be, she owes her sister that goodbye (especially after being beckoned in a dream), she needs to come full-circle. There’s something to be said about closure in every traumatic event and I think, if she could have avoided it completely she would have, but given that she’s back in Nigeria and she could die any moment anyway, the trip to the beach for the sake of Nkiruka makes some sense to me.

Hey, I meant to ask you… were you at all taken aback at the confrontational side of Little Bee displayed towards Lawrence? The way she threatens to expose him if he tries to separate her from Sarah… was that completely out of left field or what?

And another thing I wanted to comment on, this idea that Little Bee could have saved Andrew but decided to save herself instead… did that color your feelings towards her in any way?

There’s several opportunities throughout the book for one human being to save another at the expense of themselves, be it Nkiruka protecting Little Bee, or Andrew and Sarah with both girls, or Little Bee being in a position to save Andrew at one time, Charlie at another, or having that face-off with Lawrence… do you think the author steers us to feel better about some of these decisions by elevating some characters and morally flawing the others?


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