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.

On Ambiguity
by Jillian Taylor

Hello, again!

Let me first say that the replacement of lemon juice for a real slice of lemon in Sarah’s gin and tonic cleared something up for me. I went to London two years ago and ordered a G&T every restaurant and pub I visited. (Once I like something, I’m pretty loyal.) The first G&T I ordered came with a wedge of lemon. Weird since I’ve only had them with lime wedges. The second G&T at a different pub came with lemon as well. So I began to ask for a lime garnish and the response was mixed. Some bartenders just said no. Others gave me strange looks – silly American – but did it anyway. The bartender-in-training at the pub near my hostel panicked because he didn’t have limes on hand and offered to use lime juice. I grabbed my glass before he could squeeze that in. That little detail in Little Bee confirmed another difference between the sides of the pond.

While I am conflicted about how to feel about Sarah’s act on the beach, I disagree that she proudly displays her missing digit. Sarah explains that she concocted a benign lie to tell people how she lost the finger on her freebie vacation. So she’s not waving around her missing finger for people to acknowledge and praise her.

However, that scene on the beach is stressful and I see both sides – Andrew’s inaction and Sarah’s ability to act. The men arrive and they want a sacrifice for a life. Andrew is unable to cut off his own finger, convinced the act won’t matter. The men will kill Little Bee and her sister no matter what. I was kind of with him at that point. Then Sarah surprised me by lifting the knife and cutting off her finger. I think she was a bit surprised too. The men arbitrarily said Little Bee could live and that was that.

So much is between the lines. Sarah never calls him a coward but using that descriptor sob sure sounds weak. And the contrast of his failure to her success at saving a girl’s life is pretty convincing. I almost wonder how much the entire event affected Sarah’s life. She’s not writing the book on the atrocities in Nigeria. She went back to work and continued her affair. Her life went on. Did she even think about it again?

Maybe someone in her position wouldn’t think about that day as much as the one who failed to act. No one wants to believe they are cowardly and if there is a moment in your life when you know you did the wrong thing or failed to do the right thing, it is a moment you will never forget. My heart went out to Andrew because I understood why he couldn’t do it and I understood why it haunted him.

I don’t think Sarah has learned much by the end of the novel and that upsets me. Unless, of course, that is the point. Hell is paved with good intentions. Flying to Nigeria to save a girl’s life comes from a good place. But look how that ended. Not so good. Cleave could be telling a parable about good intentions and how without true understanding they often fail.

One thing I definitely feel sure about is how the story repeatedly demonstrates the moment of choice and how ambiguous that moment can be. When Lawrence told Little Bee she could go to jail for allowing Andrew to commit suicide, I remember thinking, really? I have mixed feelings regarding the whole accessory to a crime for not getting involved and stopping a suicide. I honestly don’t see why attempted suicide is technically a crime either, but that is a debate for another day. I was with Little Bee when she revealed that and maybe because we don’t know this until after the halfway mark. I’m with her for the long haul by that point and knowing she watched Andrew hang himself didn’t make me dislike her.

The suicide, the beach, the fight between Lawrence and Little Bee, calling the police when Charlie goes missing in London – these are all moments when someone needs to be saved, someone has a choice to make and some of those choices are honorable and others are merely survival. Aside from my general dislike of Sarah and her abhorrent maternal instincts, I wouldn’t say she was a bad person. I wouldn’t say anyone in the novel was a bad person. And I’m sure that given the right perspective, there is a chance that the men who come would evoke sympathy as well. That’s the point, I think.

Could this mixed bag be what made so many people love this book? I’m sure Little Bee’s narrative voice was part of the draw. Well, at least for the first half of the book. But Cleave finds an inventive way to discuss the moral ambiguities of the Western world meddling in another country’s affairs. When is this allowable? When it becomes personal?

This is the beauty of fiction. While a true story about a girl like Little Bee might make you cry, you wouldn’t come away from an article with moral questions on your mind. Cleave is able to delve into both sides of the debate by creating two opposite characters and allowing us in their minds.

Good book. Good debates. Good stuff.

Any final thoughts? And very shortly we’ll be discussing The Scarlet Pimpernel!!

-Jillian

Click here to see all installments.
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