When I put a piece of chocolate in my mouth, I have an expectation of how it will taste—sweet, dark, rich. I would be shocked if that chocolate tasted like a lemon. If I am going to eat a lemon, I will eat a lemon, just don’t tell me it’s chocolate before I take that first bite.
Stung by Little Bee
A Book Review by Christine Clark
By Chris Cleave
304 pp., Simon & Schuster, 2009, $24
Unlike the fire ants and black widows that pervade my yard, Little Bee is a book by Chris Cleave. It’s popular: The New York Times best seller list for February 27, 2011 ranks it number four in paperback trade fiction. Inanimate as it is, I am stung.
Little Bee was on a friend’s reading list. I sometimes get in a rut, and crave some variety in what I am reading. To step out of such ruts, I like to try books friends are reading. I might have chosen Little Bee, but I’m not certain I can recommend it.
Why “stung”? I knew nothing about the book, except that I had to reserve it at the library and wait a few weeks until it was available. That’s usually a good sign. I was hooked when I read the flyleaf 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 will need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this: …” A few things about the story are noted—two women meet, something happens, and their lives are changed forever. The text also makes a polite request that you not tell anyone what happens in the book, because “The magic is in how the story unfolds.”
Those teaser words compelled me to jump right into the book. The story opens in a detention center for illegal immigrants in England, where Little Bee, a female refugee from Nigeria, is being held. There is no magic while the majority of the refugees dread their eventual deportation. In the second chapter, I continued to seek the magic.
By Chapter 3, when a hilarious passage had me laughing out loud and sharing my glee with my family, I was certain the magic had begun. It had not. The story “unfolded” and I read to the last line of the book, hoping I would find the promised magic. I didn’t. Any magic in the book is in the excellent writing—not in the story, which I am not supposed to “tell anyone.”
What I will tell is that I feel ripped off by the blurb writers. If some misguided publisher’s public relations representative thought those lines would sell a book, he or she is correct. If that same representative thought readers would be satisfied with the ensuing magic, he or she is incorrect. Why? Readers don’t like it when they are misled into believing a book is something it is not, even though Little Bee’s best-seller ranking belies my sentiments.
Little Bee is about the dark side of ethnic and oil conflicts in Nigeria. The subject matter would not have prevented me from buying and reading Little Bee. I have purchased and read similar books. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe’s renowned book, also set in Nigeria, is one of them. The back cover of Things Fall Apart states that it’s about conflict—societal and individual. It also says that the book is about the cultural clash between a tribe and the missionaries eager to convert that tribe to their religion and to their customs. Before I turned the first page, I knew there would be no magic, except in Achebe’s superb prose. I even sought additional books by Achebe, knowing they were about conflict in Nigeria.
I have no dispute with the content of Little Bee, although I deplore the conditions to which the people of Nigeria are subjected. In fact, because the book is so well written, I might even have recommended it, despite its lack of magic. Little Bee’s problem lies in what the reader is led to expect. Had Little Bee’s blurb writer been honest, I would not have been so frustrated when I read the book’s final words. I would not have searched for “magic” that was not there, except in fleeting moments in the relationship between the two women.
Should you read Little Bee, you are free to disobey the book’s command and tell your friends what happens, but don’t mislead them. Be honest, as I will be here: This is an intense book about severe cultural, ethnic, and corporate conflict, and greed. It’s worth a read, but not if you are seeking magic—it simply does not exist in “how the story unfolds.”