“Sad words are just another beauty…”

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave (2008)

It took me like a gazillion days to read this novel, because I kept being interrupted by children’s books like Nate the Great and The Golden Compass and (UGH) Nancy Drew, although under normal circumstances, I would have blown right threw it. Because it’s easy to get lost in Cleave’s exquisite prose.

Through the voices of two women, one Nigerian and one English, Cleave tells a story of inexplicable connections and tragic circumstances. A story, that despite its horror, somehow makes you feel a little hopeful.

Sarah is a successful editor of a women’s magazine, mother to a four year old who refuses to take off his Batman costume, and wife to a man she has given up on long ago. Little Bee is a young woman growing up in a violent, warring country, fleeing to a land as foreign to her as sand is to a polar bear. And the only thing she has brought with her is the driver’s license of Sarah’s husband, Andrew.

Little by little, through alternating chapters, we learn how Little Bee came into possession of the license, why Sarah’s missing a finger on her left hand, and what happened to make Charlie insist he is a superhero. We also learn how single days can turn the world upside down, and what it means to save someone. Cleave’s artful way of building sentences, paragraphs, pages made me forget where I was and quite nearly took my breath away.

However. I know I was only there for four months, and I know that I am a very white American, but whenever I read a book set in Africa by a non-African, my hackles get raised. Because it seems that, more often than not, these portrayals end up being ones of horror or pity, and Cleave didn’t disappoint. And when authors (film-makers, journalists) do this, it feeds the world’s misconceptions. Instead of picturing the powerful waterfalls, the colorful fabrics, the beautiful smiles, we see AIDS, civil wars, refugees.

So even though I was blown away by Cleave’s writing and taken in by every character, I couldn’t quite love Little Bee.

Gentle and heart-stopping, 2 stars.

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