I really thought I would like Little Bee – it had fantastic reviews, the cover/summary looked really interesting and for god’s sake, Pamie Ribon recommended it. But I really just didn’t, and the more I read, the more frustrated I became. It could have been such an incredible story, but it fell completely flat.
Little Bee is a Nigerian refugee who has spent two years in a London detention center. When she leaves it illegally, she calls the only people she knows in Europe: the O’Rourkes. But five days later, when she arrives at their house, it’s just in time for the husband’s funeral. He killed himself after her phone call. But why???
There’s a lot going on here: the mystery of how Little Bee knows these people, what happened when they met (ominous voice: on the beach!), why the husband killed himself, and so on. The book had two main issues for me. First of all, the voice of the two main characters — Sarah O’Rourke and Little Bee — felt very untrue. I hate to say it’s because a man wrote the novel, because men can write women’s voices just like women can write for men, but I really think that might have been the case here. The problem is compounded by the way he writes for Little Bee. The girl supposedly mastered the English language after two years in a detention center (hey, good for her!), and speaks like this the entire novel: “In a few breaths’ time I will speak some sad words to you. But you must hear them as we have agreed to see scars now. Sad words are just another beauty. A sad story means the storyteller is alive. The next thing you know, something fine will happen to her, something marvellous, and then she will turn round and smile.” That’s how she narrates, and also how she speaks to the other characters. It became very distracting after a while.
The other problem was the focus of the novel. Little Bee’s story — how she and her sister witnessed some “oil men” in their village, which lead to her sister’s brutal murder and her own escape – gets very little attention. The author glosses over much of it, other than how the O’Rourke’s got involved. Instead, a lot of the focus is on Sarah — her unhappy marriage, her affair, her desire to do good by Little Bee.
The only part of the book that I found effective was Sarah’s little boy. The way he handles (or doesn’t) his father’s funeral and death was heartbreaking, and showed me that Cleave has some real talent (which made the rest of the novel that much more frustrating). At the end of Little Bee, Sarah plans to write a book about Little Bee and the crisis in Nigeria. I think that’s the book I actually wanted to read.