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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Review: Little Bee by Chris Cleave

I'm not one to write negative reviews. Just because something doesn't resonate with me doesn't mean it won't with someone else. For example, I hate detective fiction. Literally, I hate it, yet it remains one of the bestselling genres. What I'm saying here is that just because I'm a bookseller or just because I write reviews that doesn't mean I am always right about books. Mostly because there is no always right about books. Literature is an art - the appreciation of art is entirely subjective.

Now, on to my first bad review. I did not like Chris Cleave's "Little Bee." I say this knowing that I am not going to hurt Cleave or his book sales by doing so. This thing is flying off the shelves - not just at my store but everywhere. It was that mountain of sales, along with the very cryptic blurb, that made me recommend "Little Bee" to my mom (aside: my mom is a crazy-fast and voracious reader; if I have a question about a book or am on the fence about whether or not I want to read it I make her read it first. It's a pretty awesome system). She loved it and raved about it for weeks (see what I mean about the whole subjective thing?), which directly contributed to it getting thrown in to the CHB bookclub ring. Mom's glowing review and, again, the cryptic blurb led to the book being chosen by the group.

I now want to share with you said cryptic blurb. It begins:
We don't want to tell you WHAT HAPPENS in this book. It is truly a SPECIAL STORY and we don't want to spoil it.
Followed by a very brief (only forty words) synopsis. Enticing, right? You're expecting to read some rare and "magical" story. Eh, not so much.

I won't say too much because the blurb specifically asks me not to divulge the plot. But I will say this, Chris Cleave is dealing with some deep ethical and moral issues in the novel. I'm not afraid of an issues novel and I generally prefer sad books to happy ones (my favorite book ends with the now completely friendless main character shooting his only friend (his dog) and ruminating for a while on the shattered skull and then turning his gun on himself - but it's good!). However, all through "Little Bee" I felt like Cleave was dragging me through the muck and saying "Look at this! This is muck!" Instead of letting me see it for myself; letting me feel the sadness, hopelessness, of the characters and learning of the grim truth through them.

I don't think it hurt the story to tell you that the eponymous "Little Bee" is a refugee seeking asylum. Chris Cleave both rightfully and obviously has a heart for refugees like her. However, he never fully formed her as a character. It was supposed to be enough that she was a refugee juxtaposed against an affluent English couple. For me, that's not enough. I need characters to believe in and care about. This book was utterly devoid of them.

"Little Bee" is all issues and questions of morality but no soul. I commend Cleave for writing about a difficult subject, but the sum of his labors amounted to a contrived mess. I do think he's an author to watch though, I expect he'll grow in his talent and I look forward to more and better books from him.

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