Friday, August 12, 2011

Little Bee: A Book and A Memory

Last week I felt like I was drowning in housework. Well, truthfully, I feel that all the time, but last week I was stressed about it, wondering how in the world I could get all the laundry done and the floors vacuumed and still get my homework finished when I couldn't put two thoughts together without my kids interrupting me.

I finally decided if I wasn't going to be productive, at least I could be a good mom and take them to the pool, where, if I was lucky, they would swim for hours thinking how great a mom I was while I sat on the side and caught up on my reading for school. Win win, right?

The book I took with me was Little Bee, and in just the first few pages, my entire perspective on my day - and maybe my life - changed.

If you haven't heard of Chris Cleave's Little Bee, it is a book that comes with a big statement on the cover: We can't really tell you what this book is about. It's a secret. And if you read it, don't tell others either.

Nice, huh? Personally, this type of blurb tends to put me off. That's a pretty big claim, and one which I don't think the book really lives up to. It's a book, with a story, that develops, and things happen you didn't know would happen, and you find out things. You know... a book.

But I won't go spoiling anyone's fun here. Let me tell you what it's deemed okay to tell you:

This is a book about two women - one from London and another from a small village in Nigeria. At one point, before the story begins, they meet under extreme circumstances on a beach in Nigeria, where events happen that change their lives. Years later, the Nigerian girl ends up in London and comes looking for the other woman, who, because of their past, is unable to turn her away.

The book is told from two points of view, switching between Little Bee (the Nigerian) and Sarah, the British journalist she met on a beach.  While both POVs are done very well, and I'd say necessary to the unfolding of the story, the most interesting part for me was Little Bee, who begins the story in a Immigration Detention Camp in extremely ugly circumstances. But Little Bee, who would probably have loved to have my washing machine to do her clothes, or for that matter, all the clothes I have to wash, as she has nothing but what she is wearing and was given to her through and aid donation box, is the more interesting of the two. It is she, with her traumatic past, who gives the reader perspective if one is willing to take it.

It is Little Bee's thoughts, her writing, that makes the book come alive, and makes you want to read it with a highlighter in hand.

There are passages like this that will take your breath away:

On the girl's brown legs there were many small white scars. I was thinking, Do those scars cover the whole of you, like the stars and moons on your dress? I thought that would be pretty, too, and 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 mean, I survived.

And also this:

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. Perhaps there are murderes lying wait for you at home. You think this because there is a light on in your house that you are certain you did not leave on... 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...

For me and the girls from my village, horror is a disease and we are sick with it...the film in your memory you cannot walk out of it so easily. Wherever you go it is always playing. So when I say that I am a refugee, you must understand that there is no refuge.

For some ridiculous reason, the marketer of this book has billed it as funny - hilarious even. But it is not. Not even in the slightest. It is sad, and thought-provoking, and wistful. Little Bee has hope, which you think throughout she should not have. She is thankful for little things - things you and I take for granted every day - like safety and a warm house and food. She is in awe of it.

And so, sitting by the pool with my laundry piling up and the dog hair still lying on the carpet, I was thankful that I had so much to do... so much to take care of. Thankful for the country I live in, grateful that I am surrounded by a family that I love that loves me. Humbled by my fortune and my opportunities.

Reviewers complain loudly about the end of this book, and I agree that the end seemed wrong, somehow. Maybe incomplete, or like it had continued two pages too far. Unsatisfying.

But Little Bee isn't meant to be satisfying, because like her life, the book is not about the end, it's about the journey.

I highly recommend this book. The writing is beautiful, the story unique, and while it isn't the easiest of topics, it isn't hard to read, either. While it might not change your life, it might just change your perspective for a day or two.


  1. I liked reading your review. Fiction that changes your perspective on life for the better is a highly commendable. I hope I can accomplish that one day. I'll keep this book in mind, however my TBR calender is booked 6 months in advance! But maybe I can squeak in another!

  2. That's exactly what good fiction should do.

  3. You gave one of the best reviews of a book I've ever read! I will will look for this book. The writer has a gift with her words.

  4. Awesome. I'm totally hooked and must read it :D

  5. I agree, great review! Really lets me know why I should read it. I'd take your advice on reading material any day, Heidi. :o)

    I just finished reading "The Help" which you recommended reading forever-ago, and it was incredible. Eye-opening!