How do I really want to review this book? I really want to just say, “This book made me mad!” and stomp off like a five-year-old. However, I’m old enough to have a five-year-old (though I don’t) and certainly old enough not to act like one. Maybe.
You see, right off the bat, I was annoyed when I flipped to the back cover to be greeted by this blurb:
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, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face…. Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it.
Um, yeah, I will because I don’t want them to start a book at midnight and read frantically until 3 a.m. only to wind up staring off into the darkness going, “Whaaat just happened there?” Plus, I’m not a five-year-old, so why is the blurb person talking to me like I am? Weird.
Anyway, about all that stuff the blurb writer doesn’t want you to blab? Why not? It totally does not work for the plot for the *BIG STUFF* to be revealed bit by bit along the way. In fact, it makes the *BIG STUFF* seem almost anticlimactic because I knew something *BAD* and *BIG* had happened in the past and that it made all this other big, bad stuff happen. Confused yet? Let me tell you what I can without spoiling it for you:
The book opens in an immigration detention center in the UK. Little Bee has been here since she was 14, and she is now 16. She has measured her moments by enumerating ways to kill herself quickly if “the men” come for her again. (See, bad stuff a-happenin). She is released because another detainee Yevette trades favors with a semi-high-ranking official. Little Bee has figured out her only chance for survival is to speak the Queen’s English, which she does quite well, with the exception of figures of speech. She has one goal: she has a driver’s license for a man she met on a beach in Nigeria where she was running from “the men.” Little Bee arrives at the doorstep of Andrew and Sarah (Andrew’s wife), and the two women must reconfigure their lives in the aftermath of what happened on that beach. Sarah is dealing with *big stuff* and cheating on her husband with a jerkface, and Little Bee just comes into all this like a wisened Samantha Jones off Sex and the City, taking everything into stride.
Cleave lets each woman take turns narrating, which is interesting because Little Bee is pretty much the only character I cared about. As is the case with many non-native English speakers, Little Bee’s insights are full of wisdom and clarity. She thinks she and the Queen have much in common because of the sometimes-violent history of the UK:
The Queen smiles sometimes but if you look at her eyes in the portrait on the back of the five-pound note, you will see she is carrying a heavy cargo too. The Queen and me, we are ready for the worst. In public you will see both of us smiling and sometimes even laughing, but if you were a man who looked at us in a certain way we would both of us make sure we were dead before you could lay a single finger on our bodies. Me and the Queen of England, we would not give you the satisfaction.
She describes the life of a detainee:
Maybe the new color of my life was gray. Two years in a gray detention center, and now I was an illegal immigrant…. That means, you live in a gray area.
She would, in fact, design
a national flag for all the world’s refugees, then the flag I would make would be gray. You would not need any particular fabric to make it…A worn-out old brassiere , for example, that has been washed so many times it has become gray.
Isn’t that a fantastic description? So while parts of this book were incredibly beautiful, I felt manipulated, and I think Cleave is a good enough writer that manipulation just isn’t necessary. If it’s not a mystery, then I want to know the pertinent details up front, and not just because it would make reviewing it a heck of a lot easier. Even in the beginning of the book, I kept flipping back to make sure I hadn’t missed anything because Cleave kept referencing the *big stuff*. I’m all about subtle, and I’m a good reader. DON’T make me doubt my context clue skills.
Additionally, though I am aware that the privileged are often the only ones in the position to help, I think the ‘privileged woman saving the less-privileged, usually woman of color’ spiel is getting old. [See my notes on this sort of thing in other reviews.]
A. I don’t buy it. Sarah is not the most selfless character, and I never saw the sort of evolution of character it requires to give up the luxury of a first-world country and your child’s safety (oh yeah, she has a son) to traipse across a dangerous country as a semi-journalistic reporter.
B. What she does is incredibly reckless and puts Little Bee in a much more difficult position than before.
C. Where does she get all this money from? I am really bored with these characters who always, always have enough money to bribe people or pay for totally-unexpected trips for extended periods of time.
So Little Bee. I expected a lot once I was sucked in, and, in my opinion, it didn’t deliver. On the other hand, I will definitely keep an eye out for Cleave because though his planning/organizational/whatthehellareyoudoingtome sense of storytelling was not up my alley, his writing style definitely was.
jenn aka the picky girl
Read this one: immediately / asap / when you get a chance / if you’re bored
P.S. Isn’t this cover beautiful? The illustration is by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich, and I think it is simply incredible. Check out his other covers – really great work. I have seen a lot of hype about this book since I’ve been blogging, though I don’t recall specific reviews or whether they were positive or negative. Often, when a book is that talked about, I tend to steer clear. I don’t really know why, other than I am ornery.
P.P.S. Want to hear some other reviews?