Monday, September 24, 2012

The Little Bee by Chris Cleave

This is the second novel by Guardian Columnist Chris Cleave (his first book ‘Incendiary’ about an Al Qaeda attack came at the time of the London tube bombings). Published as ‘The Other Hand’ in Britain, it has a blurb guaranteed to reel in the undecided-

We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book.
It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it.
Nevertheless, you will need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this:

This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face. Two years later, they meet again—the story starts there….
Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds.

Little Bee has a brilliant opening, set in a government holding pen for illegal aliens facing deportation, where ‘Little Bee’ our eponymous and feisty heroine-protagonist # 1 makes the memorable line that launches the narrative-

Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl.

There is some follow up stuff about the currency of money vis-a-vis that of an African girl, which does not live up to the promise of that first line, but hey, the book was on the New York Times Bestseller list, was nominated for the Commonwealth Best Book of the Year, the opening and the blurb have started you thinking about Sophie’s choice, and this and that and all that, so you sort of will yourself to enjoy the first chapter. It is not bad, peppered with clever lines (...Scars don’t form on the dying. A scar means I survived) and attractive characters- a gregarious Jamaican stereotype who springs our heroine from the detention centre along with a couple of other detainees - a loony Aishwarya-Rai look-alike (stereotype number 2?), and a woman whose raving insanity manifests itself as soon as they are out of incarceration. Somewhere after the second chapter, the book gets down to the business of story-telling.

The drab detention centre and its colourful detainees are quickly discarded, their bait function performed, and we are introduced to heroine-protagonist number 2, the thoughtful alpha woman who has it all but always wants more. The slide into Pret-Lit Cornyland is swift from here. Idyllic flashbacks into an African village, cinematic villains, chases, torture, electrical engineer baddies who walk away into the sunset, magazines being put to bed, every trick in the book is thrown at us, drowning out a reasonable plot, and to be fair, good writing. For after those initial pages, the book does fall flat.

Chris Cleave
So I sat down to wonder why it did not work for me. My thesis is that Mr. Cleave is unable to inhabit adequately, the characters of the protagonists, and for a book written in alternating first person accounts, this is a disaster. Perhaps in an effort to be precise and concise (and meet a deadline), the author has neglected to draw full and sympathetic characters. I disliked Sarah and was indifferent to Little Bee. When I realised that Mr Cleave did not have much first-hand experience of Little Bee’s world, it was all very clear. Only the characters of the men made sense (white men let me add, for I did not get the Nigerian villain-philosopher who preens himself on his knowledge of English suburbia). The book might have retained a kernel of truth if it had been from the perspective of Sarah’s tortured husband Andrew.

I read fiction to understand some truths. I believe fiction presents truth indirectly. It entertains when it engages honestly with our fears and our desires. When it does not, it is purposeless and soulless. So is Little Bee.

This book is about two hundred pretty pages of unmet expectations. It is similar to but better than Andrew Miller’s Snowdrops, which I have reviewed elsewhere in this blog.

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