Sunday, November 07, 2010

Little Bee by Chris Cleave (2008)

A friend at work loaned me Chris Cleave's novel Little Bee (2008 -- published as The Other Hand in England), and I wish I could say I liked it more than I did.

To start with, there is the copy on the back of the book:

We don't want to tell you too much about this book!

It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it.

Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this:

It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific.

The story starts there, but the book doesn't.

And it's what happens afterward that is most important.

Once you have read it, you'll want to tell everyone about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.

Blech. First of all, I am not a fan of books (or movies, or TV shows, or anything) that try to enforce some kind of voluntary non-disclosure agreement for their readers, and it is a definite strike against your plot if you have to resort to this kind of "find out the secret!" sales technique. Secondly, the plot of the book doesn't rely on a twist or surprise or anything any more than any other book, so the warning is a little unnecessary.

The plot itself isn't bad at all -- the book is structured in alternating chapters narrated by Little Bee, a sixteen year old Nigerian refugee, and Sarah, a thirty-two year old British magazine editor with a journalist husband and a four year old son. The two women had a tragic and random encounter on a beach in Nigeria two years before, and during the course of the book their lives become even more intertwined.

The first few chapters from Little Bee are good. She has a unique voice and a sense of humor and lightness that is missing from the rest of the book. The Sarah chapters, on the other hand, are heavy-handed and feature some of the most horribly awkward and unbelievable dialogue I've ever read. And as soon as Little Bee enters Sarah's orbit, her chapters become leaden and clich├ęd as well.

Here's a little taste, complete with moral (from Sarah):

So, I realized -- life had finally broken through. How silly it looked now, my careful set of defenses against nature: my brazen magazine, my handsome husband, my Maginot Line of motherhood and affairs. The world, the real world, had found a way through. It had sat down on my sofa and it would not be denied any longer.

Now imagine reading 300 pages of that.

This book was a disappointment -- after a promising start with Little Bee's character, and what is ultimately an interesting and moving plot, the book falls into a whirlpool of predictable patterns, cardboard characters, and moralistic conclusions.

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