Saturday, May 7, 2011

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Back when I was in school, I was the queen of the highlighter.  I didn't go so far as color coding, but I did have a pretty heavy hand.   When I read books now, I sometimes find myself marking a page that has a passage I'd like to go back to later.  I had to resist the temptation when reading Little Bee to go crazy with my little slips of paper.

I didn't know anything about Little Bee other than that it was on many of those "must read" lists.  Reading the book jacket was not very illuminating but it was intriguing.  "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 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...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."  

I want to honor the author's request and not say too much about the story.   I will say, though, that the book grabbed me at the start and never let go.  I don't think it's disclosing too much to tell you that the protagonists are a Nigerian girl and an English woman.   The chapters alternate between their voices and their perspectives.

The first chapter is narrated by Little Bee, and starts off, "Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl.  Everyone would be pleased to see me coming....It can disguise itself as power, or property, and there is nothing more serious when you are a girl who has neither."   As her story unfolds, she warns that it will be sad, but says that ,"Sad words are just another beauty.  A sad story means, this storyteller is alive."   Little Bee's story is, in fact, heartbreaking, although you don't find out exactly what has happened until much later in the book.

When we are introduced to Sarah, she is about to bury her husband.  Her four year old son, who does not understand that his father is dead, will not be separated from his Batman costume, which he wears at all hours of the day and night.  His job is to fight the "baddies" in the world, and he takes it quite seriously.   Sarah is an editor and her husband was a journalist.  She says of that time, "It was the summer of 2007, and my son was fighting the Penguin and the Puffin, and my country was fighting Iraq and Afghanistan, and my husband was forming public opinion.  It was the kind of summer where no one took their costumes off."

The book is very intense, but it has a lot of humor and compassion.  As I'm paging back through it, I realize how eager I am to read it again.  I don't feel this way often--there are so many good books and so little time--but I do think I'll turn back to it someday soon.  While Little Bee definitively does not qualify as a "beach read," you'd be remiss not to put this book on your summer reading list.

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