Little Bee by Chris Cleave
Publication date/ Length: 2009 / 266 pages
Synopsis (from the jacket cover): We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is truly a 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, 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.
First line: “Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl.”
Review: Imagine reading a book on the first day of the month knowing with complete certainty that it will be the best book you will read that month — and maybe the best book you will read all year. Then, imagine knowing you should not recommend it to anyone you love, not wanting to inflict an enormity of pain, yet simultaneously feeling so glad you can share the burden of Little Bee’s pain yourself.
The cover of this novel kept appearing on “best of” lists so I haplessly requested it from the library, devoured it in two days and finished in a pool of tears. What Cleave has achieved is truly hard to put into words. Here are attempts by other reviewers that I can agree with: “searing” “fearless” “shocking” “warm” “witty” — and I would add “relentless.”
Just like Little Bee’s life story, Cleave allows the reader to let her guard down, exhale, sigh with relief – and then the pain begins again. Little Bee’s story begins when a small Nigerian town finds a bounty of oil lying beneath it. But this is not simply an indictment of the Western world’s addiction to foreign oil — or even of the reality of what the hot topic “immigration” means to a person’s bones and blood. Cleave reveals wrenching realities that are so often politicized into sound bites and chants (“drill, baby, drill”), through the story of a sixteen year old girl who changes the lives of all she comes into contact with, not the least the reader. Cleave’s language and prose is exquisite. Here a few random samples:
The description of a funeral: “It was disorientating, like having the entire contents of one’s address book dressed in black and exported into pews in nonalphabetical order.”
An afternoon in May: “It was the month of May and there was warm sunshine dripping through the holes between the clouds, like the sky was a broken blue bowl and a child was trying to keep honey in it.”
A colonized land: “Tea is the taste of my land: it is bitter and warm, strong, and sharp with memory. It tastes of longing. It tastes of the distance between where you are and where you come from. Also it vanishes — the taste of it vanishes from your tongue while your lips are still hot from the cup. It disappears, like a plantations stretching up into the mist. I have heard that your country drinks more tea than any other. How sad that must make you — like children who long for absent mothers. I am sorry.
The true cost of oil: “The gasoline flowing through the pump made a high-pitched sound, as if the screaming of my family was still dissolved in it. The nozzle of the gasoline hose went right inside the fuel tank of Sarah’s car, so that the transfer of fluid was hidden. I still do not know what gasoline truly looks like. If it looks the way it smells on a rainy morning, then I suppose it must flash like the most brilliant happiness, so intense that you would go blind or crazy if you even looked at it. Maybe that is why they do not let use see gasoline.”
So, who would I recommend this to? Every book club — without reservation. I think sharing the story would help alleviate the pain of reading and experiencing it somewhat. Plus, I truly want as many readers as possible to experience what Cleave has achieved. Masterful and unforgettable.