I am of mixed mind when it comes to Chris Cleave's Little Bee. On the one hand, it's an interesting novel that deals with important political issues; on the other hand, overall, I didn't find the novel entirely plausible. Cleave has definite talent writing characters in voices that are atypical -- female characters that read well, but there's just something that rings false. I felt especially this way about Little Bee herself, that she was perhaps a bit too precocious for her age, but when you factor in what she'd been through (horrific, awful events in her home country of Nigeria; unspeakable violence and two years in a detention centre in England after stowing away in a boat), maybe it's not so inconceivable that she would be wise beyond her years. Yet, it all didn't sit quite right with me.
So, the plot of the novel revolves around two women, the aforementioned Little Bee, an asylum-seeking refugee from Nigeria who was subjected to an horrific experience of seeing her entire family destroyed by oil men; and Sarah, the wife of Andrew, a couple who met Little Bee on a beach on a fateful day that would change their lives forever. When Little Bee is finally released from the detention centre after spending two years essentially in jail as the British government evaluates her refugee claim, the only people she knows are Andrew and Sarah, and so she makes her way to them, which sets in motion a series of events that have tragic consequences.
And it's not just the plot that felt forced but the relationship between the two women was awkward in many ways. I kept comparing the novel in my head to Dave Eggers's What is the What, and to Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes, both novels that have protagonists that go through unspeakable horrors, but both of these novels just pull it all together in a way that doesn't make the reader feel as though the situations are jammed in just to make a point. Granted, it's an important point -- or an important book -- and you can't fault Cleave for his research or how hard he worked to create the voice of Little Bee. But how he chose to wrap her story within that of Sarah's and how their lives are intertwined just doesn't work. Further, there's a fairytale element to the penultimate action that rang false and the end of the novel was quite flat compared to how hard he had worked to set up the situation from the start of the book. I didn't believe the drama -- and this book is ALL about dramatic situations that forever change people's lives.
Overall, as much as I was looking forward to reading this book, I am not at all sure what I think or how I feel about it. I want to like it A LOT because I believe strongly in fiction that pushes the boundaries and tells important, political stories. But in a way, I don't think they should be shoehorned in when they don't fit the characters or the voice that's actually telling the story. I wanted more for Little Bee -- and I wanted more from the book. But maybe I'll feel differently if/when I think about it some more.
Has anyone else read this book? What did you think?
WHAT'S UP NEXT: Lionel Shriver's The Post-Birthday World. It's a chunky, chunky book so I probably won't finish it in a day but we'll see how many hours my RRBB spends awake tonight.
READING CHALLENGES: The Off the Shelf Challenge -- I think I've had this book on my TBR pile ever since it came out almost two years ago. Also, Chris Cleave is British, so that counts too for Around the World in 52 Books -- he can be England.