I finished Little Bee by Chris Cleave on an airplane on our way back from our California vacation earlier this summer. It was the perfect book for a long day spent in airports and airplanes: a unique and engrossing story, populated by characters who felt real. It’s one of those novels with female characters so well drawn that it’s hard to believe it was written by a man (no offense, guys).
It is the story of two women: Little Bee, a young woman from Nigeria, escaping the terrifying things happening in her home country by trying to immigrate to the United Kingdom, and Sarah, a working mother with a young son in the UK who has just lost her husband. Little Bee and Sarah first met two years ago, under horrific circumstances and are now about to meet again, in a way that will change both their lives forever.
This novel has all the elements I love in a good piece of fiction: believable characters you come to care about, a plot with plenty of unexpected twists and turns, suspense, and even humor. Despite its serious subject matter (i.e. life-changing moments), the author weaves in a wonderful sense of humor. The passages about the mom’s young Batman-obsessed son had me laughing out loud and reading paragraphs aloud to my own sons.
The back cover of the paperback – and all of the publicity surrounding the book’s release – made a big deal about keeping the plot a secret, with admonitions not to tell anyone what happens after you read it. This was taken to such an extreme, though, that it built up the expectation that there was some huge surprise in the book. That approach seemed to backfire, since I read many reviews when it first came out from people who were disappointed that the “surprise” wasn’t bigger than it is. Still, I heard enough good things about it to intrigue me.
In my view, the plot has as many secrets and surprises as any other good work of fiction with an element of suspense, and you should never spoil it for people who haven’t read it yet (you’ll never read spoilers in my reviews!). So, yes, expect some surprises – even some that are a bit shocking – but don’t let that expectation overrun your enjoyment of the other elements of this well-written novel. This would also be a great book for book groups to discuss. As for me, I enjoyed this novel very much and am looking forward to reading other Chris Cleave books.