Little Bee – Chris Cleave

I had no idea September’s book-crossing meeting was going to hold such a surprise in store for me. From the odd assortment of books spread on the table at Starbucks, I chose Little Bee. Or maybe it chose me, it’s always a question open to debate.
The blurb on the back cover doesn’t say much about the book but what got my attention was that the girl who had brought it said she didn’t remember much about the story. A mysterious book, I thought to myself, and my mind was made up. Little Bee came home with me that evening.


This is a story of a Nigerian refugee girl who ends up in an immigration detention center in England. Her name is Little Bee, a name she takes after running away from her village in Nigeria when the men came. Indeed, the reader will see these four words quite often throughout the pages and it feels as if her whole story is built on them. She was happy living in a jungle village when the men came. She nearly lost her life when the men came. From that moment on the fear never leaves her. Neither does courage. In the two years spent locked up with other refugees, she learns “the Queen’s English”, an experience described with a sort of humor bordering on sadness (or was it the other way around?). The day she is released together with a few other girls, she goes to search for the man she met on that day on a beach in Nigeria, when the men came. That day when she also met the woman who saved her life.

This reminds me of a line I read in a book a long time ago – it said that when you save a life you are responsible for it. Little Bee’s story seems to fit that line perfectly, because the women meet again. The other woman is Sarah, young, successful, an editor for a women’s magazine. She is married to Andrew, a newspaper columnist, and they have a 4 year old son, Charlie, whose fixation with Batman provides a humorous escape from the oppressive sadness of the narrative.
Little Bee arrives at Sarah’s house on the day of Andrew’s funeral, and while this looks like a rather weird coincidence, it really isn’t. And just like on that day on the beach, Sarah is given the choice of saving Little Bee all over again. And just like on that day, she takes it.

The writer invests the women with strong characters. For the most part the men seem to be either villains or some sort of extras manipulated to reinforce the women’s strength. Although she plays the role of the savior (she is Batman’s mother, after all), Sarah is not perfect. Her troubled marriage is what had gotten her and Andrew on that beach in Nigeria in the first place. Maybe it was a chance to redeem herself. Maybe she was supposed to be there when the men came.
The book explores moral issues and hard decisions, there’s infidelity and violence so atrocious it’s painful to read, but there is also love. Every time I opened the book to read I just wanted to cry. Many times I did.

Why did the men come? This question haunted me while reading the book. I knew the answer was there, in the next pages, but when it came it was more sinister than I imagined.
This is one book that will stay with me for a while – I am not sure if I like that, because it was so hard to read and I still feel depressed. So much of my emotions were invested in that story. It was almost as if I had known Little Bee all my life. And I wish I was with her on that day on the beach, holding her one last time, looking into her eyes to see her courage shine through, when the men came.

*Read in September 2011

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12 Responses to Little Bee – Chris Cleave

  1. Vishy says:

    Beautiful review, Delia! ‘Little Bee’ looks like a touching, moving, difficult-to-read book. It is interesting that the woman characters depicted in the book are strong and the men characters depicted are either villains or extras. Thanks for introducing this interesting new author to us.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Vishy,
      After writing the review I noticed my feminist approach but then I won’t change a word. Nevertheless, I have to admit Andrew does something in the end that may prove far more reaching than saving a life.
      It was a tough one to read and one of the best books I’ve come across in 2011.

  2. Aths says:

    This book sounds so much better than what I imagined earlier. I’ve read a few reviews that barely revealed anything because the synopsis said so, but I find it hard reading a book on the weight of such a review, when I don’t know what the book is about. I guess I can look for it.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Aths,
      It is a very good book but that probably doesn’t mean much, it’s a question of taste after all and I’m sure there are people who didn’t like it. Not knowing much about it worked for me and one more thing: if I like how a book starts, chances are I will like the whole thing. This one got my attention from the start. If it comes across your radar, just read a page or two and take it from there. Something tells me you’ll like it. 😉

  3. Jenners says:

    Excellent review! I’ve read quite a few reviews of this book but yours is the first that really made me want to read it.

    • Delia says:

      Thanks Jen, I hope you do get to read it one of these days. Some books are so beautifully written that I find it hard to write a review which will accurately express the way I feel. I’m glad the words did not fail me this time.

  4. Ella says:

    Thank you for sharing; this does sound so sad and haunting! I am curious now…

  5. Good review, Delia – really gave me a good idea of what the book is about, giving away just enough but not too much! The only book I’ve read by Chris Cleave is Incendiary and I enjoyed that, so may give this one a try now. Strangely I have always liked sad and haunting books.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Andrew,
      It’s always a challenge writing about a book which makes such a distinctive dent into the multitude of books out there, without spoiling the experience for future readers. I’m new to Chris Cleave’s writing and I’m glad I didn’t know much about this book because it made the reading experience so much more enjoyable.
      Sad and haunting books are the best – they stay with you longer.

  6. Sounds like a very moving book Delia … but one with punch as well. I’ll have to look out for it. (Love your feminist perspective!)

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