Little Bee – Book Review

How I would love to be a British pound. A pound is free to travel to safety, and we are free to watch it go. This is the human triumph. This is called, globalization. A girl like me gets stopped at immigration, but a pound can leap the turnstiles, and dodge the tackles of those big men with their uniform caps, and jump straight into a waiting airport taxi. Where to, sir? Western Civilization, my good man, and make it snappy. – from Little Bee, page 2 –

Sarah and Andrew, a British couple, travel to Nigeria where they hope to heal the wounds in their marriage. They check into a beachfront hotel, blissfully ignorant of a war which is raging in the area – a war for oil, where the native people are being murdered to gain access to the black gold which lies beneath their villages. A young girl (who has taken the name Little Bee) and her sister have fled from one of these villages and soldiers are tracking them down. It is on the beach that the African girls cross paths with Sarah and Andrew…and horror unfolds.

Chris Cleave’s novel doesn’t start on the beach, but everything that happens there has a lasting impact on the characters. The novel actually begins two years after the beach incident – Little Bee managed to get to England where she sought asylum and where, within minutes of her arrival, the immigration authorities locked her up in an Immigration Removal Center. Now she has managed to get free of the Center and has traveled on foot to Sarah and Andrew’s home. It is there where the real story unfolds.

That summer – the summer my husband died – we all had identities we were loath to let go of. My son had his Batman costume, I still used my husband’s surname, and Little Bee, though she was relatively safe with us, still clung to the name she had taken in a time of terror. We were exiles from reality, that summer. We were refugees from ourselves. – from Little Bee, page 22 –

Little Bee is a book about two women who unexpectedly find each other through tragedy. It is their stories, told in alternating points of view, which drive the narrative of the novel and reveal the underlying inhumanity of the refugee and asylum system in England.

Cleave’s prose is ironic, at times humorous (although the themes of the novel are anything but funny), and original. When Sarah compares the recent unfolding of the war to that of her child, Charlie (who dresses as Batman throughout the novel), the resultant analogy is a brilliant look at how wars (and children) need our constant attention lest they grow out of control.

The war was four years old. It had started in the same month my son was born, and they’d grown up together. At first both of them were a huge shock and demanded constant attention but as each year went by, they became more autonomous and one could start to take one’s eye off them for extended periods. Sometimes a particular event would cause me momentarily to look at one or the other of them – my son, or the war – with my full attention, and at times like these I would always think, Gosh, haven’t you grown? – from Little Bee, page 33 –

Thematically the novel explores fate and how in an instant our lives can be changed by things not in our control. It also takes a hard look immigration laws, specifically those impacting individuals seeking asylum from brutal governments (which are often militarized). A third theme looks at the choices we make and how those choices impact our futures and the futures of those closest to us. Cleave examines these themes through the unlikely friendship of the two protagonists – Little Bee and Sarah.

One of the problems I had with the book was not so much the story or Cleave’s writing – but the marketing of the book which sets the reader up with certain very high expectations. The book flap reads:

We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is truly a special story and we don’t want to spoil it.

And they don’t tell us. So as a reader, we purchase the book with certain expectations. I expected not just a good book, but a book which was going to blow me away; perhaps provide a twist in the plot which would surprise me. That didn’t happen (I actually anticipated how the book HAD to end) and I could not help but feel a little manipulated. I think the publisher did a bit of a disservice to the author by marketing the book the way they did…so I won’t hold it against Cleave.

In fact, this is a good book. It is a meaningful book which is heartbreaking in many ways. Despite revealing the dark side of humanity in his story, Cleave also shows that there are good people in the world. There is light even when there is darkness. The world may have evil, but it also has hope and goodness. My favorite character in the book was not either of the women, but Charlie – the little boy who poses as a superhero. Not only does Charlie represent the innocence in the world, but he is also symbolic of future hope. His child’s voice was endearing and honest…a refreshing glimmer of goodness in a novel which looks at betrayal.

Little Bee is not an easy read, but it is a book I am glad I read.

Recommended for book groups, and for readers who enjoy literary fiction.

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  1. I totally agree with you about the marketing and the expectations. I think I responded more negatively because of it. I did love some of the author’s observations, particularly about marriage, and affairs, and social responsibility, and death, but didn’t feel I could share them in my review, sort of out of deference to the marketing. But I think that was a mistake, really. Because in the final analysis, you feel you can’t make a reasonable argument about why anyone should read the book besides a sort of “take my word for it” kind of review.

    By the way, I did not anticipate the ending as you did. I guess what surprised me was not Sarah’s naivity, but the persistence of the soldiers – why would it have still mattered to find this one person?

  2. I hate it when a book is hyped to death and then leaves you feeling dissatisfied after you’ve finished. This has happened to me so many times, and once very recently. It really takes the impact out of the story when it’s just gushed about all over the place. That being said, I still do want to read this book, only now I will be aware to lower my expectations a bit. Thanks for the wonderful and honest review. It was much appreciated!

    • Wendy on April 28, 2010 at 07:23

    Rhapsody: I know what you mean about being reluctant to include details – but I would not omit details in other book reviews, so I tried not to do that for this one. I think a lot of readers were put off by the marketing…it was annoying and made me feel manipulated. In fact, I avoided buying the book for that reason – and it was only because my book group chose it that I picked it up. Re: the ending – I didn’t think it was necessarily rationale that the soldiers were so persistent…but I could see that was where Cleave was going with the story.

    Zibilee: You’re welcome – I agree with you about over-hyping a book. I feel a little badly for Cleave, because I’m sure he had no say in how his book was going to be marketed. It is definitely a book worth reading, though, so I’m glad you’ll still pick it up. I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts on it when you do!

  3. I think I liked this book more than you did. It really made me think about a lot of things, like greed and immigrations. Great review, as always.

  4. I’ve read the flap of the book, and the marketing worked on me (well, I bought it, but I haven’t actually read it yet). I, too, expected surprise and shock. I’m still looking forward to reading it, and I think the premise of starting the story two years after the action is interesting. I really enjoyed your review. Thanks!

  5. I’m glad you wrote a proper review of this book and didn’t participate in the marketing strategy. As you can probably guess, I reacted very negatively to it: it made me not want to read the book! I’m still not sure I will, but your review has piqued my interest…

  6. Since I so rarely read the jacket blurbs, I went into this book completely blind. I wound up enjoying it quite a bit more than you. I agree with your thoughts on Charlie. I just loved his innocence. He reminded me of another young boy from Joyce Maynard’s 9/11 novel, The Usual Rules.

    Excellent review, as always, Wendy!

  7. You liked this one more than I did…I really didn’t like it much at all. Like Jill, I appreciated some of the observations made but ultimately this book just sort of annoyed me.

  8. I haven’t read this one, but really want to. I’m not expecting the book to blow me away, so I might enjoy it more than you did. I’m curious about it because of the extremely varied reactions it’s been getting.

  9. I wondered about that blurb … it does draw you in but it sounds like it isn’t quite the story I would expect from that blurb. I do have a copy so I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

    • Jeanie on April 29, 2010 at 18:59

    Wendy, I agree with many of the other comments here – for me, this book didn’t live up to the hype. I wanted to love it, but I got frustrated with Sarah, who I found tiresome. I’d have liked a lot more Little Bee!

    • raych on April 29, 2010 at 19:18

    I’d forgotten about that blurb and I liked the book ok, but anything with a blurb like that should be all HYAH! TWIsssssST!!!! somewhere nearish the beginning, which a summary would spoil. Otherwise yes, expectations of mind-blowingness.

    • Wendy on May 5, 2010 at 08:30

    Kathy: I think I especially appreciated the observations on immigration…

    Carrie: I think the marketing worked on most people (I know it got me to buy the book), but that is probably what annoyed me the most…if felt a little deceptive and manipulative. I hope you’ll enjoy the book – it is a good book overall.

    Avis: I saw no reason to not talk about the book and some details. I think readers should know what they are buying (and I don’t think I spoiled the book by revealing some of the plot either!!) Glad you agree!

    Les: I haven’t read Joyce Maynard’s book – maybe I should!

    Amy: It is interesting how the reviews of this book are so polarized…I think I fell somewhere in between … not love, not hate, but I liked it.

    Swapna: I’ll be interested to see what you think of it…

    Jenners: I’ll be waiting to read your review.

    Jeannie: Sarah was definitely a flawed character, wasn’t she? She did some dumb things too…I don’t think you’re alone with your annoyance of her!

    Raych: Well said!! *laughing*

  10. “Not an easy read but glad I read it’ is a perfect desription!! It’s definitely among my highest rated. This is one of those books that made me sad that I’m not in a book group because I think this would be such a great book to discuss in that setting.

    This book really hit so many different emotions for me. Little Bee’s observations were so spot on and often funny, but in the next paragraph my heart would be breaking.

    I do agree that the marketing was irritating. I think I was a bit pre-hype because thanks to a bookseller friend who’d read it early I was first on the library waiting list for it when it was released.

    • Wendy on May 9, 2010 at 08:39

    Suzi: I am currently discussing this novel in a book group and it is making a good discussion book. Glad to hear that this book resonated so strongly with you….

    • Anita on July 30, 2010 at 07:14

    I am rarely “blown away” by a book so I wasn’t disappointed in that regard, and once I get sucked into a good book I don’t refer back to the reviews. I picked up this book, read the first two pages and was hooked, so I to the cash register I went. Before I knew it I had read half of the book and realized that nothing “happy” had happened yet, other than Little Bee being released from the detention center. I wanted to keep reading because I was taken in by the writing and important story that Little Bee needed to tell. I didn’t see the story as depressing, merely honest.
    As an aside, I take medication, the side effects of which are difficulty focusing my eyes. Until I read Little Bee, I had not read a book in over two years. I hope I find another book soon that grabs me as much as this one did.

    • Karen on August 3, 2010 at 17:53

    I borrowed the book from the library mostly because it was suggested by a book club. I had not heard much about the book but the stupid marketing blurb which really turned me against reading it than inclined me to read it. Since it tootks weeks for my library to secure the book, I would read it. A friend told me it was depressing…gee thanks. I am so glad I read it! IT was heartwrenching but by the 1st chapter I was hooked. One of the saddest revelations to me was that to Little Bee the Bible ended in Mathew and she thought that was the end. It was very sad throughout the book but Charlie brought such love that it made me appreciate his hope and honesty. The book also reminded me of past ab

    • Karen on August 3, 2010 at 18:20

    knowing women who had been raped and or beaten, especially about not ever really feeling safe….waiting/worrying for if or when the men came. The violence forever changes you and haunts you. There does not seem to be enough to change where you live when it is a hellish existance to always think of means to escape or die to end the memories or triggers that snare your thoughts. So, not a casual nightime read BUT it made me think and with some sorrow but joy in that we all have a kinship with Little Bee..

    • Wendy on August 15, 2010 at 09:03

    Anita: I’m happy you had such a great experience with this book.

    Karen: Sounds like you got a lot out of this book – thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • victoria on October 2, 2010 at 16:22

    I loved this book like no other book. It is a magical book filled with wonders!Wish I could tell all the people out there about what it was like for me to read this book , but all I can tell you is that went you read this book everyting comes alive and dances threw your head and never leaves ’till you pu the book down. You must read this book if you like sadness that becomes happy and fall that turns to spring, I would love to tell you the book of Little Bee but the magic of the story will only work if you read and find out on your own!
    ~ Victoria, 13

    • Wendy on October 10, 2010 at 06:30

    Victoria: I love hearing from teens…and I am always so happy when someone has a great reading experience. Sounds like this book had a big impact on you! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it!

    • Lahni on March 6, 2011 at 15:32

    I just finished reviewing this book and I almost didn’t buy the book because of the blurb on the back. And I think it coloured my whole experience with the book. I hated the book and I especially hated the ending.

    • Wendy on March 6, 2011 at 16:19

    Lahni: I understand – I think the book was really set up to be a let down for a lot of readers. While I didn’t hate it, I was disappointed in it somewhat.

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