LITTLE BEE by Chris Cleave

I have a tendency to avoid books that are really popular. Either I worry that the book won’t live up to the hype, or I feel like once I’ve read a hundred reviews of a book, I won’t be able to experience it anew, or I am just snobby that way. (Yes, I admit it.) For many years, Little Bee by Chris Cleave fell into that category of best-sellers I have avoided, joining others such as Eat Pray Love and Fifty Shades of Grey. (Incidentally, The Help WAS on the list, as was Room for a while, but curiosity got the better of me and I actually enjoyed them both. Also, I read Gone Girl before it exploded, so it never made it onto the list.)

Little Bee by Chris CleaveSo, Little Bee. I decided to take the plunge once I learned that the audio version was narrated by the extremely talented Anne Flosnik, who is also a friend of EDIWTB. For those who haven’t read it, it’s the story of a 16 year-old Nigerian refugee who has been in a London immigration detention facility for two years. She manages to get released, and tracks down a suburban couple – Sarah and Andrew – who she met two years earlier on a Nigerian beach. The events that transpired on that beach were horrific, and had serious ramifications for each of the three. Little Bee was forced to flee after witnessing the brutal murder of her sister, while the incident signaled the death knell for Sarah and Andrew’s marriage. They left Nigeria both physically and emotionally ravaged.

The fact pattern here is compelling. But it was given poor treatment by Cleave, who wrote what is basically a parable. Ultimately, I found Little Bee to be contrived, implausible and shallow. There were so many conversations that barely scratched the surface of what the characters SHOULD have been talking about. I kept thinking to myself, “This never could have happened.” or “That’s not what this person would have said at this juncture.” or “Seriously?” Cleave clearly wanted to tell a story about globalization and human rights, and on a more personal level, the sacrifices one human being will make to protect the well-being of another. I get that. But the book he wrote was really just a fable. There was no emotional heft to it. Some really disturbing stuff happened, and some very important issues were touched on, but the characters were about an inch deep.

I am really surprised that this book was so well-received. My paperback version has a few pages of blurbs, the novel itself, an afterword from the author, book club discussion questions, and a Q&A with Cleave. Clearly this was a popular book. I just don’t get it.

What salvaged this reading experience for me was the audio version. It is narrated by Anne Flosnik, and her performance is exquisite. She does Little Bee’s voice in a Nigerian accent that she maintains perfectly throughout the whole book, without ever deviating. And she moves seamlessly between Little Bee and Sarah. I have a lot of admiration for Flosnik’s performance. She had to narrate some very disturbing scenes, which she did without unnecessary drama. Her even, almost dream-like narration actually had the effect to me of heightening the parable-esque quality of the book. Were it not for Flosnik’s narration, I might have given up on Little Bee long ago. So while I didn’t like the book, I do recommend the audobook for the sheer pleasure of listening to Flosnik’s interpretation.

I know that I am in the minority here, but this book was really not for me.

11 Comments

  • July 19, 2013 - 10:36 pm | Permalink

    I have a copy of it sitting on my shelf, but have passed it over many times. The plot summary hasn’t ever appealed to me, but I picked up a used copy just because everyone was raving about it. I have a feeling that I’ll probably feel much the same way that you did, and that’s why I haven’t read it and don’t know if I ever will.

    • gayle
      July 21, 2013 - 9:27 am | Permalink

      Yeah,I hear you. I’d take a pass on this one!

  • July 20, 2013 - 10:29 am | Permalink

    Sorry guys, I really enjoyed it. Different strokes for different folks. Thank you for your review. Just a side note, I did not like he’s net novel, Gold, as much.

    • gayle
      July 21, 2013 - 9:27 am | Permalink

      I was wondering about Gold. What didnt you like about it?

  • July 20, 2013 - 4:18 pm | Permalink

    I liked this one more than you did. Sorry it didn’t work for you.

    • gayle
      July 21, 2013 - 9:27 am | Permalink

      That’s ok! I think a lot of people did!

  • July 22, 2013 - 11:27 am | Permalink

    It’s sad but true that I am so glad someone felt my Little Bee pain. I think I was the ONLY one in my book club that didn’t love it. Actually I actively disliked it quite a bit. I thought the characters and the treatment of the subject matter were unrealistic and on the thin side.

    I’m also curious as to Susan’s thoughts on Gold. I enjoyed that one better, but it is hard to trust my judgement in this case because I liked Little Bee so little. Anything might have been an improvement.

  • July 22, 2013 - 11:40 am | Permalink

    You know, I started this one after all the hype it got and then put it right back down. I figured it just wasn’t a good time for me to read it. However, I’ve had absolutely no desire to ever revisit it and your review confirmed it for me.

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