Little Bee

Cover image of Little Bee by Chris Cleaveby Chris Cleave
United Kingdom. 2009. 304 pages.

Little Bee, a young Nigerian refugee, has just been released from the British immigration detention center where she has been held under horrific conditions for the past two years, after narrowly escaping a traumatic fate in her homeland of Nigeria. Alone in a foreign country, without a family member, friend, or pound to call her own, she seeks out the only English person she knows. Sarah is a posh young mother and magazine editor with whom Little Bee shares a dark and tumultuous past.

They first met on a beach in Nigeria, where Sarah was vacationing with her husband, Andrew, in an effort to save their marriage after an affair, and their brief encounter has haunted each woman for two years. Now together, they face a disturbing past and an uncertain future with the help of Sarah’s four-year-old son, Charlie, who refuses to take off his Batman costume. A sense of humor and an unflinching moral compass allow each woman, and the reader, to believe that even in the face of unspeakable odds, humanity can prevail.

About the author

Chris CleaveChris Cleave is 36. His debut novel Incendiary won a 2006 Somerset Maugham Award, was shortlisted for the 2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize, won the United States Book-of-the-Month Club’s First Fiction award 2005, and won the Prix Spécial du Jury at the French Prix des Lecteurs 2007.

His second novel, titled Little Bee in the U.S. and Canada, is a New York Times #1 bestseller. It is titled The Other Hand in the UK, where it is a Sunday Times bestseller. It was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards.

Cleave has been a barman, a long-distance sailor and teacher of marine navigation, an internet pioneer and a journalist. He lives in London with his wife and three children. (Text and image credits: the author’s website)

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  1. Flawed by implausible characters

    *** SPOILER ALERT ***

    Our reading group chose Little Bee/The Other Hand for April’s discussion — a choice driven, no doubt, by the incredible praise the book received from major literary outlets and an absolutely fawning introduction from the book’s editor. Out of 18 attending readers (yes, the Berlin group’s attendance is that strong), the majority would not recommend the title to other readers. 

    What was liked: what one member called the “literary engineering” of Cleave’s storytelling. There’s no denying that Cleave has a talent for catchy text, and that he created a “page turner” of a book. Book supporters and detractors agreed that what the author described of the immigration detention center was impressive and (sadly) believable. Yvette, Queen Elisabeth and the coin, U2, the ice cube maker, etc. — these were all pieces that, as one critic stated, should themselves be clipped, collected, and organized into one pamphlet for distribution on their own merits. These charmed most readers.

    What was disliked: characters and scenes that were over-engineered, if you will. The co-protagonist, Little Bee, is a 15 year old, the sole survivor of an entire community that was butchered for oil/land theft, and the eyewitness to the rape and dismemberment of her beloved older sister. She’s a social castaway, then a stowaway, and finally a runaway, and even her fascination (!) with death is written with a certain wry witticism that speaks more to the author’s puppetry than the character’s real (and obscenely brutal) experiences. The other protagonist, Sarah, is written in the same unbelievable way. Although she lost a finger to a machete, her husband to suicide, and her idealism to a whole range of experiences, Sarah takes her (annoyingly precocious) 4-year-old son back to the very Nigerian beach where all of the violence took place just two years before (and continues to take place). Not one of the attendees — even the book’s supporters — could understand this unlikely and utterly implausible behavior. That this beach is the concluding scene left most readers with a sense that the whole narrative was “contrived.”

    The other characters — Charlie-as-Batman, the adorable/insufferable child character; Lawrence-the-monstrous-civil-servant and the “ripped from chick lit” cornball romance; Andrew the drunk Irishman — I’ll leave for others to say more. In short: not recommended.

  2. After getting over my initial discomfort wondering if I’d been confused about reading what I thought had been reviewed as “a great little book”, I found myself irritated. This was the book and what I was reading was not a moving insightful entry into the painful lives of frightened desperate immigrants I had not understood before, but instead a Hollywood vision of an import asocial issue which was so manipulated and silly  that I lost sight of the humans behind the story.

    How Little Bee got the accolades it got must be a story in itself.

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