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Book Review: Little Bee

Posted by gck Thursday, January 19, 2012


Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)
Recommended for: people interested in the stories of refugees and world issues

Book 2 of 52 in the “Around the World in 52 Books” challenge.
Country: Nigeria

Back-cover summary:
Sorry, you don’t get one. Interestingly enough, there seem to be two different cover summaries for this one. The one on Amazon, which is not the one that was on the version I read, says this:

We don't want to tell you too much about this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this: It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific. The story starts there, but the book doesn't. And it's what happens afterward that is most important. Once you have read it, you'll want to tell everyone about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.

The version I read looks more like this:


My review:
To be honest, this is not at all the sort of book I would ever pick up on my own. Many other reviewers have been SIMILARLY TURNED OFF by the pretentious “summary” and the obnoxious SELF-PRAISE on the cover. Trying a bit too hard, eh? I don’t understand who they think they’re going to hook through techniques like this. NEVERTHELESS, I will admit that I enjoyed the book more than I expected to, and hopefully some edition will eventually be published that loses all the gimmicks.

I had one friend suggest this book awhile back. I looked it up, didn’t instantly feel a desire to read it, and thought, “Eh, maybe.” When I signed up for the Around the World Challenge, I knew I wanted to read more books set in Africa (and in the Southern Hemisphere in general) so this one made it to the top of my list. Another friend wrote a rave review on GoodReads, so that got me even more excited to read it. In relation to this challenge, I’m now wondering if I really should even count it for Nigeria. The author has no connection to the country that I can determine, and though one of the main characters is from Nigeria, most of the book is set in England. I felt like the portrayal of Nigeria was very limited and one-dimensional. I’m hoping the other books that I will read from Africa show more than violence and poverty.

Little Bee gets 3.5 stars from me because I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I agree with the original summary that the African beach scene is horrific. One of the most disturbing scenes I’ve read in my recent memory. I imagine that some sensitive readers might put the book down at this point. I don’t agree, however, that the rest of the book is “extremely funny,” nor do I understand why they would wish to characterize the book as such. To me, this book seems to be about several characters dealing with misfortune that connects them. It gives a compelling argument for relaxing deportation rules for refugees. None of that is particularly amusing.

The narration switches between two characters: Little Bee, a Nigerian refugee who is the title character, and Sarah, a British woman. Little Bee, whether narrating or being mentioned by Sarah, is always the more interesting character. She is colorful, unpredictable, and sometimes entertaining, whether she’s imagining how she would tell her friends in Nigeria about the things she experiences in England or making amusing observations like “…in your country, I can say anything so long as I say that is the proverb in my country. Then people will nod their heads and look very serious.” However, she remains somewhat distant because it’s hard for the readers to really understand her motivations. It seems like she alternates between expressing a strong instinct for self-preservation and indifference to the idea of dying.

The story grabs the reader quickly, and then peels back one layer at a time to give more information about the events that took place. I agree with the cover that “the magic is in how it unfolds.” It drags a little when Sarah is dealing with her work and relationship woes because it’s hard to care much about first world problems when you’ve got a Nigerian refugee right there, but maybe that is the point.


  1. Jenny Says:
  2. Oh yeah, that back cover blurb fest would completely turn me away from reading this book! Thanks for your review.

  3. Gaeta1 Says:
  4. I'd be out of there, too. Unfortunately, my book group is reading it later this year. Well, I've ben warned--thanks!


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