Little Bee by Chris Cleave
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The back cover blurb claims that the magic of this story is not what happens, but how the story unfolds. I disagree. I think the magic is not in the story or the plot. The magic is in the moments, the small worlds within the larger world of the novel, that Cleave creates with his prose.
Cleave paints a complex tale of interior conflict arising from a tale of exterior conflict. And while the exterior conflict of Cleave's characters is intense, dramatic and highly political, the interior conflict is what drives the book forward. The politics of Cleave's book become secondary because Cleave chooses interior over exterior. He studiously avoids painting the blatant swath of a morality tale; instead, he invests in the smaller story that trickles out like a tributary from a powerful river.
And somehow when Cleave, a white, privileged male, channels a black, African teenage girl, he is at his best. When he puts himself into her world and her thoughts, his prose resonates with meaning and thoughtfulness;
"I ask you right here please to agree with 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."
"This was always my trouble when I was learning to speak your language. Every word can defend itself. Just when you go to grab it, it can split into two separate meanings so the understanding closes on empty air. I admire you people. You are like sorcerers and you have made your language as safe as your money."
"In your country, if you are not scared enough already, you can go to watch a horror film. Afterward, you can go out of the cinema into the night and for a little while there is horror in everything...For one hour you are haunted, and you do not trust anybody, and then the feeling fades away. Horror in your country is something you take a dose of to remind yourself that you are not suffering from it."
"I do not know why the small puddle of urine made me start to cry. I do not know why the mind chooses these small things to break itself on."
Cleave doesn't do as well with the white Brits of his tale, though there are a few moments;
"I'm so sorry, Charlie. Mummy is too grown up to feel very much anymore, and so when she does, it catches her by surprise."
"There's eight million people here pretending the others aren't getting on their nerves. I believe it's called civilization."
But despite the gorgeous prose Little Bee was somewhat of a disappointment. Look past some of the more beautiful writing and it becomes simply the story of three unlikeable adults, one loosely-drawn and mostly annoying child and a girl who we only get a chance to know through her story of personal tragedy. Add a nebulous ending and you get one of those books that you finish and throw aside in disgust. But you aren't sorry you read it. And parts of it stick with you long after you've returned it to the shelf.
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