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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

BPL Book Discussion: Little Bee

Little Bee: A NovelLast week, my group met to discuss Chris Cleave's enormously popular novel Little Bee. This book has been among the most popular book discussion titles for the last 18 months now.

The one problem with selling this book to book club's is the wacky marketing.  Here is what the back of the book says:
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.
From an RA standpoint, I love that the focus is on the appeal of the book rather than the plot.  But for preparing my book club for what to expect, this is less than helpful.  However, thankfully  the good people at Reading Group Guides, who along with questions, posed this more helpful synopsis:
Little Bee, a young Nigerian refugee, has just been released from the British immigration detention center where she has been held under horrific conditions for the past two years, after narrowly escaping a traumatic fate in her homeland of Nigeria. Alone in a foreign country, without a family member, friend, or pound to call her own, she seeks out the only English person she knows. Sarah is a posh young mother and magazine editor with whom Little Bee shares a dark and tumultuous past.

They first met on a beach in Nigeria, where Sarah was vacationing with her husband, Andrew, in an effort to save their marriage after an affair, and their brief encounter has haunted each woman for two years. Now together, they face a disturbing past and an uncertain future with the help of Sarah’s four-year-old son, Charlie, who refuses to take off his Batman costume. A sense of humor and an unflinching moral compass allow each woman, and the reader, to believe that even in the face of unspeakable odds, humanity can prevail. 
Before I talk about particulars, I want to share some over all impressions.  This book is begging to be discussed. In fact, I would not suggest reading it without knowing you have someone to talk to about it.  It is a challenging book to read, both in a literary sense and in an emotional one.  This is not a book with clearly delineated "good guys" and "bad guys."  We are reading about deeply flawed people in a messed up world.  There are no answers here, only more questions, which makes for a great discussion.

Now on to our discussion.  Please note, there are SPOILERS here:
  • Our group was split with 7 people liking Little Bee, 2 disliking, and 7 feeling "so-so."
  • Those who liked the book felt this way because of Little Bee herself. Comments included how strong she was, how she pushed herself to the limit, but grew as a person.  Interestingly, those who did not enjoy the book also cited Little Bee as their reason.  They felt she was too good to be true, even after I told them that Cleave went to a detention center and talked to many refugees to help shape Little Bee's voice.
  • The book is narrated in alternating chapters by Little Bee and Sarah.  Everyone agreed that the switching back and forth between the two narrators made the book better.  We all felt getting only one woman's point of view would have not worked.
  • Another issue of literary construction we discussed was how this novel is in two distinct halves.  The first half is told backward from "the present" back to the day Sarah and her husband met Little Bee on a beach in Nigeria.  While the second half of the book begins at "the present" and goes until the conclusion of the novel.  Although this is a very conscious construction by Cleave, we all agreed that it was not obtrusive.  This style helped allow the story and all of its complex issues to unfold in a fairly natural way.  It is tough to write a novel about atrocities against women and children, suicide, guilt, a broken refugee protection system, and the price of globalism, but by breaking the narrative up, Cleave made it not only palatable, but more personal.
  • We talked a lot about Sarah. This novel is interesting because although Sarah is one of our 2 main characters, she is not easy to like. She is an adulterer, her and Andrew only go to Nigeria because she was cheating and she was cheap.  Also, many of us in the group are mothers and we did not agree with her parenting choices, especially the way she endangers her son by taking him to Nigeria and putting him in harm's way.  It was also sad to see how far she had to fall before she grew to appreciate her late husband.
  • We did try to see the novel as Sarah's redemption.  Little Bee is a Christ-like figure.  She is there to show Sarah the error of her ways.  Little Bee even sacrifices herself for Charlie (Sarah's son) at the end in case we didn't get it.  If we see the novel as the book Sarah finally wrote to open the world's eyes to the atrocities against women in Nigeria, then her redemption is complete.
  • Not everyone agreed with this assessment.  Many participants felt that while that may be what Cleave was trying to say, they did not feel Sarah changed enough.
  • We talked about displaced persons and their plight.  Some people shared personal experiences with family who lived through these camps.
  • When Little Bee enters a new place, she always first finds a way to kill herself "in case the men come to get her." Although this was unsettling at first, we understood that this was her way of gaining power over the uncertainty of her life.
  • Man's inhumanity to man is a huge theme in this book.  We talked about how generation after generation has observed this phenomenon yet we have made no progress at overcoming this. Also, the dysfunction of Sarah and Andrew makes us question how we can behave better as humans when we cannot behave as a family.  But we also decided that this story should be seen as an allegory, hinting at the hope for humanity.  Little Bee is so good, and does so much with her short life, that we should see this as hope.  She may have died, but not before she got others to share their stories of persecution with Sarah, who will now make it her life's mission to publish these stories and let the voices of the oppressed be heard by the world.
  • Everyone agreed that this was a superbly written novel.
  • In terms of the ending, I asked people to give me a word or phrase to describe it.  I got: powerful, inevitable, peace (that's what Little Bee's real name is), hope for humanity. This would not have been a believable story if Little Bee were able to stay in England as a British citizen.
Readalikes:  I thought about The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini as I read Little Bee.  Both are about young people in difficult situations in a foreign land.  Both are fairly "current events" centered and both feature an extremely flawed narrator; both Sarah and Amir are the cause of much of the bad things that happen.

The NoveList book discussion guide also suggests, Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and What is the What by David Eggers, which both have African settings.  Day After Night by Anita Diamant, The Sound of Language by Amulya Malladi, and The Road Home by Rose Tremain are also mentioned.

Others have suggested Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese as an interesting pairing, especially for book discussion groups.

Some readers may want to learn more about the violence in NIgeria, especially as it pertains to the oil industry.  For those readers I would suggest starting with A Swamp Full of Dollars by Michael Peel.

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