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Review – Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Little Bee
by Chris Cleave
288 pages
Published February 10, 2009 (HC)
Fiction, literary

Little Bee by Chris Cleave was picked for my online book club’s March selection. It’s been on my radar for a while, but bells and whistles sounded when a friend said she recommended it to her book club, and offered to buy everyone a copy of the book because it wasn’t yet out in paperback.

Let me just get this out of the way: I loved Little Bee.

Little Bee is told from two points of view: Little Bee’s, an asylum seeker from Nigeria who has fled to England, and Sarah’s, a middle class white woman whose husband has just committed suicide. The story is doled out in such a way that the reader gets anxious about what must have happened on the beach in Nigeria. All we know is that Sarah is missing a finger, her husband’s committed suicide, and somehow Little Bee is involved.

Cleave seems to envelop the reader in Little Bee and Sarah’s world. We can hear Little Bee’s thoughts as she is constantly plotting how she would kill herself “in case the men come suddenly”. We can see the juxtaposition between Sarah seeing the world as shades of gray, and her son, who constantly wears a Batman costume, who sees the world as made up of “goodies and baddies”. We can see the reality of Little Bee’s native country, as she imagines how she would explain things to her friends back home.

Where I think the author excels is in getting the reader to examine their own humanity. What would you give up for someone else’s life? When put in this situation, a person learns their character, and in one character’s case in this book, found they came up short.

Here’s a quote from The Neverending Story (the movie) that seems apropos to Little Bee:

“Next is the Magic Mirror Gate! Atreyu has to face his true self!”
“So what? That won’t be too hard for him.”
“Ah! That’s what EVERYONE thinks! The kind people find that they are cruel. Brave men discover that they are really cowards! Confronted with their true selves, most men run away screaming!”

Morality, or the lack thereof, while not overt in Little Bee, is startlingly present. Sarah is morally ambiguous, as she will save someone’s life but refuses to end her extramarital affair. Little Bee is not without moral ambiguity, as she sees someone hurting themself, but comes to their aid a little too late. I think England (and any country that offers asylum) has become calloused, as what Little Bee went through in Nigeria isn’t bad enough (watching her village be massacred and her sister raped and murdered) to offer her asylum. Little Bee is a “drain on resources”, and while England talks a big talk about offering asylum, as Cleave points out, if the text book given to immigrants to prepare for their citizenship test in the UK, Life in the United Kingdom, is riddled with typographical errors and inaccuracies, then how earnest can they really be about offering asylum?

Another aspect I loved about the book was Sarah and Andrew’s marriage. Cleave is able to make you see how consumed Sarah and Andrew were with each other, and then how they deteriorated to strangers.

Whenever I need to stop and remind myself how much I once loved Andrew, I only need to think about this. That the ocean covers seven tenths of the earth’s surface, and yet my husband could make me not notice it.

Within the first month, I’d known he wasn’t the right man. After that, it’s the growing sense of dissatisfaction that keeps one awake at night. The brain refusing to let go of those alternative lives the might have been.

I found Little Bee to be incredibly moving and profound. If forced to confront who you are, who you’ve become, would you run screaming? We don’t always know what little moment will define us, but we will, ultimately, be defined.

Rating: 90 out of 100

Visit Chris Cleave at

Other reviews:

Bermudaonion’s Weblog

Linus’s Blanket

Literary License

Lotus Reads


Book source: I bought this book myself.

| Tags: , , , , 21 comments »

21 Responses to “Review – Little Bee by Chris Cleave”

  1. Kylie Purdie

    I was taken by the cover immediately. After your review I was totally captivated. Can’t wait to read this one.


  2. Bibliophile By the Sea

    I LOVED this book as well; it’s one I would re-read. Glad you loved it as well.


  3. booklover

    I must be one of the few people who did NOT love this book. I didn’t even mildly enjoy it and I kept hoping it would get better, and it didn’t. I did finish it though, because I really hoped the ending would make up for the rest of it, but it didn’t. 🙁 i had such high hopes, and perhaps that is why I was left disappointed.


  4. Amy ()

    I have this on audiobook but am scared to start it. I’ve read so much fiction by Nigerian authors that I’m scared Cleave just won’t get it right and it will be noticeable to me!


  5. Literary Feline ()

    I was really moved by this book as well. It definitely offers a lot of food for thought. I am glad you liked it, Trish. Great review.


  6. Melissa Sarno ()

    Great review Trish! I liked this book for all the same reasons you mentioned. I loved the character of Little Bee and there are a lot of moments in the book that I’ll never forget (the girl with the yellow sari, the scene on the beach, batman jumping in the grave, etc.) The only thing I didn’t like about the book was that it seemed to have a pretentious air about, it seemed very proud of itself, like… ‘what I’m saying is really important, so listen up’. I’m not sure why I felt that way but I did. Still, I enjoyed the read. It was hard to put down.


  7. Kiki

    My group LOVED this book, excellent for book groups because whether you loved it or hated it (and my group loved it across the board) there is so much to discuss–so relevant and human…Incendiary, Cleave’s first novel, is pretty good too if you enjoyed thi one, he does a great job with the female voice.


  8. zibilee ()

    This is a book that has been on my radar for a really long time, and the more I read about it, the more I want to go out and grab a copy. Your review was just beautiful and only strengthens my resolve to go out and get this book immediately. I like that it makes you ask tough questions, both of the characters and of yourself.


  9. Steph

    I think I’m one of the few people who hasn’t read this book! I’ve heard such great things about it that I’m kind of scared to read it, because inevitably I wind up underwhelmed by popular books (see my response to the recently lauded “Room”!). Still, your review is so compelling that I know I will have to pick it up eventually!


  10. bermudaonion (Kathy) ()

    I loved Little Bee too and actually had a great discussion about the book with someone from Nigeria the last time I was in New York. Thanks for the link love.


  11. Veens

    That is an awesome review. I was intrigued by the cover and this has been in my wishlist for a long time.
    That quote about confronting one’s true self, is so true.


  12. Natalie ()

    I have wanted to read this for so long! I’ll have to add this to my 2011 must read list!
    Natalie ;0)


  13. frankie

    I enjoyed this book also. It has been several months since I read it and at times I think about scenes. Would I have made the sacrifice for a stranger?


  14. SuziQoregon

    I loved this book too, so it makes me happy to see other people feeling the same way. I think it’s one that is perfect for book groups because there are so many things in it that are worth talking about. It’s been months since I read it but Little Bee and Charlie are still very much in my head.


  15. Staci

    This book moved me beyond words and has left a huge imprint on my heart. great review!


  16. Beth F ()

    As you know, I was not as taken with the book as others were. I felt that the book stopped short of discussing important issues and at times I found it difficult to accept the actions of the main characters as being realistic.


  17. Michelle-RedHeadedBookChild

    I too loved this one! It was one of my favorites from last year!


  18. Lisa

    So glad to read that you loved this one! Myself and another member have pushed this one for our book club. She read it and thought it would be great to discuss but I just pushed it because I’ve heard it makes for good discussion. Phew–so happy to know I haven’t foisted off a dud on the group!


  19. Little Bee by Chris Cleave » Semicolon

    […] take away from this story. It’s yet another good reminder of how truly fortunate we are.” Hey, Lady! Whatcha Readin’?: “Where I think the author excels is in getting the reader to examine their own humanity. What […]

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    […] just appreciate the story it’s trying to be. Other reviews (kinder than mine): book-a-ramaHey Lady! Whatcha Readin’? The Book Lady’s Blog P. S.  I also really, really hated how Chris Cleave portrayed […]

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