One day a friend of mine posted a link to Little Bee by Chris Cleave with a request to the Facebook community something like this, “Please read this so we can talk about it.” I was attracted to this book, because somewhere in the comments of that post it was compared to The Poisonwood Bible, which is a book that I think amazingly well written, even if it paints a pretty unflattering picture of missionaries. To me, the only real similarities between the two books are that they both tell African stories, they are from the perspective of more than one character trading chapters, and they are both amazingly well written.
I can tell you the exact moment in the book that I knew I was hooked until the end. It was the moment Little Bee said, “and I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I , we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.” This sums up all I loved about the book, and about the character of Little Bee. She was a survivor. She had experienced unspeakable things in her home in Africa, followed by a harrowing trip through the United Kingdom, and then back home again. And yet, through it all, she did what it took to survive, while not losing her compassion for the people around her.
I read a lot of different types of books. When I read books about writing, I tend to write down what my speech teacher in college called, “ego-aphorisms”, that is; phrases and sentences I find particularly helpful. I do this when I am reading theology as well, or, more often in that case, I underline in the actual book. But when I read a novel, I usually put my pencil aside and read for the sheer pleasure of it. I am not looking for anything more than entertainment. With Little Bee, I found myself repeatedly picking up my pencil to underline a phrase here, a sentence there. The character of Little Bee is so compelling, I kept marveling at the fact that the author is a white male. How in the world did he get inside the head of a Nigerian woman?
Strangely, I was not as drawn to the chapters written from the perspective of the British woman, Sarah. I found it difficult to find anything to which I could connect in her life. At first I found myself wondering how the author could be so much less successful with a character from his own culture, but as I have thought about the book (which I have, a lot!), I have wondered if maybe he intentionally created a counter character to Little Bee who was not able to cope with what she had seen, because she was from a culture where tragedy is not a way of life. As Little Bee describes it, “Horror in your country is something you take a dose of to remind yourself that you are not suffering from it. For me and the girls from my village, horror is a disease and we are sick with it. It is not an illness you can cure yourself of by standing up and letting the big red cinema seat fold itself up behind you.” I think I will have to read the book again (something I almost never do with a novel), so that I can get a better grasp on the interaction between the characters.
This is not a book where everyone lives happily ever after. The lives of all the characters are messy. The pitfalls of government policy that tries to solve all problems as if they are exactly the same are shown to their natural end. Regardless, you come away feeling hopeful. Not so much for Little Bee, as for a world where there are survivors who while they are shaped by horrible events, refuse to be defined by them. Due to the usual nature of this blog, I feel compelled to mention that this is a book that includes what is often called, “adult content”, although not in a gratuitous way.
It’s a good book. It is a mesmerizing book that made this American lady realize how insulated she is from many of the world’s worst problems. Even so, I could relate to much that was said about the scars left on us, both visible and invisible, by the tragedies of this life. It inspired me to see my scars as beautiful indicators that I am still alive. This will be one of those books that will stick with me for the rest of my life. I would lend you my copy, but you are going to want your own.