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Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: LITTLE BEE by Chris Cleave

Contemporary Fiction
Simon & Schuster, 2009
271 pages  $15.00 

Once, not so very long ago, there was a Borders Express near my house--a tiny Borders store with the nicest clerks, so homey you forgot it was a link in a very long chain of Borders stores. I was buying two other books, and Little Bee sat on display at the checkout. The clerk saw my interest and gushed about how "everyone" loved the book, and "no one" would spoil it by saying too much about it.

So I'm a sucker for hand-selling. I bought it.

I don't believe in telling much about a book (or a movie, for that matter) anyway, whether it's Little Bee or not. The wonderful feeling of cracking the spine of a new book and not knowing what world you're stepping into is too often spoiled by the instant tweets and chirps of pundits. That said, I think it's perfectly okay to reveal that Little Bee is about the friendship between two women of very different worlds. One is a Nigerian refugee; one is a London magazine editor. How their lives come together, the choices they make, the bond they share--these are things that you can discover as you read.

It's a compelling story, one you'll be loathe to put down, partly because of its unforgettable characters and partly because Chris Cleave does such deft work of telling their story. In only 266 pages you understand these women and the men, both young and adult, who inhabit their lives. It's not a sweeping, vast family drama; it's a small story, but also a very big story. Cleave gives the reader the microcosm of a much bigger picture, and we come away feeling like we get it at last.

Little Bee is a great novel for any writer to read as well. Study its pacing, its use of voice (you always know who's talking, whether or not you see the dialogue tag), its attention to small details--the feel of sand between your toes, the green pastures of southern England, the taste of hot tea. They mean different things to different people. How do your characters respond differently to things that might seem like ordinary human experiences?

Read it. You won't be sorry.

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