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Little Bee, Big Disappointment

April 12, 2010

SPOILER ALERT: I will be discussing significant plot elements in Little Bee

Was it the mysterious synopses, the five-page preamble of critical acclaim or the gripping cover image that got me so excited for Little Bee? Perhaps it was a combination of all three.

For whatever reason, I was prepared to be blown away by the novel. Smashed to smithereens. Changed forever. But in the end, the novel was nothing more than an enjoyable – if not forgettable – read.

Don’t get me wrong. There were some things that Cleave nailed in his novel about Little Bee, a young Nigerian girl who flees to London to protect herself from being murdered by oil-seeking rebels. Specifically, Cleave excels at the following:

: ) Developing a strong connection between Little Bee and the reader

Little Bee is a young woman with extremely perceptive observations for her age. Cleave weaves these often poignant reflections throughout his novel in a touching manner that cuts to the reader’s core. One passage in particular exemplifies this; In the beginning of the book, Little Bee makes a pact with the reader that although she has sad stories to tell, we should not pity her because she lived to tell them. She says

“I ask you right here please to agree wtih me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty, Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.”

I loved that line, particularly because it shows a delicate strength – one that says “I am tough” without being obnoxiously intense, and makes us fall in love with Little Bee from the start.

: ) Thoughtful writing that brilliantly portrays Little Bee’s emotions

Though Little Bee escapes the perils of her homeland, her journey to asylum is not complete. She has to survive two years in a horrific immigration detention center, assimilate herself to British culture and make a life for herself in a country where she knows (almost) no one – all while living with the fear that the murderers will track her down. Needless to say, she is distressed.

Cleave develops illustrious ways to express this fear and anxiety. The most effective is Little Bee’s tendency to assess environments for ways to kill herself in case “the men come suddenly.” Little Bee says

“For the first six months in the detention center, I screamed every night and in the day I imagined a thousand ways to kill myself. I worked out how to kill myself in every single one of the situations a girl like me might get into. In the medical wing, morphine, In the cleaners’ room, bleach, In the kitchens, boiling fat. You think I am exaggerating?”

This is a theme that Cleave carries throughout Little Bee’s travels, which helps the reader understand just how horrified Little Bee feels.

On the other hand, Cleave’s novel fell short in the following ways:

: ( Underdeveloped relationships between characters

Cleave spends so much time building relationships between his characters and his readers that he neglects to develop relationships between the other characters. The result? A series of charitable actions that are hard to believe because we are convinced the characters don’t know each other well enough. The most obvious being that Sarah chops off her middle finger to save Little Bee’s life after knowing her for mere minutes. But another example includes when Little Bee gets deported back to Nigeria, Sarah and her son Charlie mysteriously show up on the plane to protect her once she lands. Sarah and Charlie stay with Little Bee for a number of weeks, guarding her from her murderers and vowing to share her story with authorities who can save her.

We know that Sarah cares for Little Bee. But risking her life and that of her 4-year old son to protect her? It seems highly implausible, especially since we barely saw the two interact. I think the main reason for this disparity is the way the book is narrated. Each chapter goes back and forth, with Little Bee telling her story one chapter and Sarah telling hers in the other. In this way, we see how each of them thinks about the other, but not how each of them acts towards the other.

: ( Suspense that falls flat

The back of the book reads as follows:

“This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face. Two years later, they meet again – the story starts there. Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds.”

So let me tell you what happens. Basically, Little Bee witnesses rebels murder her entire village in Nigeria. She and her sister Nkiruka flee to the Nigerian shore where they run into Sarah and Andrew, a British couple vacationing in Nigeria. As they plea for their help, the rebels catch up with the young girls and threaten to kill them – unless Andrew severs his middle finger. He chickens out, so Sarah does it instead. But because the rebels only got one finger, they only release one girl – Little Bee. Nkiruka is not as lucky, and she is raped and murdered while Little Bee watches.

Horrible? Absolutely. But losing a finger? Come on. That’s the “terrible choice” I’ve been waiting to find out about? I was expecting something much worse. Not that losing a finger isn’t terrible, but the hype the synopsis sets up is a little unnecessary.

Overall, the story was entertaining, and many of the passages were worth remembering. But in the end, I think I would have liked Little Bee a little more if there wasn’t so much buzz surrounding it.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 9, 2010 2:55 pm

    What. It’s not losing a finger that’s horrific. It’s the pathetic choice NOT to lose a finger for the defenseless life of this child they met, Nkiruka, of another human being.

    If you didn’t miss the obvious, how would you live with that choice?
    No big deal?

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