An African Girl’s Tale Told By A London Bloke

August 14, 2010  |  

“Page Flipping” is Madame Noire‘s weekly column on books. Stay tuned for more topics, comment or write us at editors@madamenoire.com if you have suggestions!

Any writer will tell you that writing from the perspective of the opposite gender in a convincing manner is quite a task. Chris Cleave, UK author, tacks on race and nationality to that challenge in his latest novel.  A Nigerian teenage girl and a 30-something British wife, mother and journalist alternately narrate Little Bee in first person.

Does this white London bloke successfully speak as an African refugee (Little Bee) fleeing from her war torn village? For the most part, yes.  Little Bee, the Nigerian girl, thinks and speaks of her country in extremes. She seems to have only wonderful or awful things to say about it. That might seem unrealistic on the surface, but it makes sense for the story. She is only 14 when she arrives in the UK. That is an age full of angst and drama. Add to that, situations that would cause angst for anyone and real life drama and you have a woman-child whose life really does seem to be all or nothing.

It’s difficult to write a review of “Little Bee” because of the hokey caution on the back cover. It reads “Once you read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds.”  For some reason, this caution is reminiscent of The Monster At The End Of This Book. These two works could not be more different though and “magic” just does not seem to be the right word for Little Bee.

The book is much better than the cheesy marketing tactic on the back cover might lead one to believe.  The “thing” that links the main characters together is the shadow in the whole book, but the full story of what happens between the two women is not fully explained until well past the mid-way point.  Not at all linear, the story alternates narrators chapter by chapter and is chock full of flashbacks and bits of social commentary on race and class.

Cleave is a strong writer with a vivid imagination and a journalistic background. He has an eye for detail and includes a fair amount of humor and poetic prose. “Little Bee” is worth the handful of lazy afternoons it takes to finish it.

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