When I first started reading Little Bee by Chris Cleave on the long trip from Mississippi to Iowa, I thought I had stumbled upon a treasure. I found it in a thrift shop for 50 cents, and for the first 150 pages I couldn’t put it down to save my life. Unfortunately, though, it lost its steam at that point, and the only thing that kept me on until the end was the captivity of a quiet motor home for ten more hours.
I finished the book in two days, and I don’t regret reading it by any means. I simply wish it had ended in half as many pages. The story chronicles the development of two women who share a horrifying experience of two years past. One is a young Nigerian refugee named Little Bee and the other is posh magazine editor, mother, and widow named Sarah O’Rourke (or professionally, Summers).
The lyrical prose and style of the story immediately drew me in, and from the first chapter (narrated by Little Bee; the novel switches first-person POV from Little Bee to Sarah every chapter), I felt that there was something determinedly deep and powerful about the story. Little Bee has just been set free from a detention center where she has been for the past two years, after stowing away on a tea ship to Britain. The author does a good job of revealing the character’s story slowly – so as to keep us interested but not entirely in the dark. We know that she experienced some horror in her home country, but don’t know what that horror is yet. We know that she has only two contacts in the whole of Britain – Andrew and Sarah O’Rourke, and she is going to find them – but we don’t know how they are connected. It all seems natural, though, this reticence, because Little Bee’s voice is so believable.
The next chapter switches to Sarah O’Rourke’s perspective, which is equally as powerful and compelling. Her husband has just hanged himself because Little Bee called him on the phone and told him she was coming (though Sarah does not know this happened), and her four-year-old son Charlie refuses to take off his Batman costume and won’t answer to anything but Batman. All we know initially is that two years ago Andrew and Sarah met Little Bee on a beach in Nigeria and something terrible happened, which resulted in Sarah losing her middle finger and Andrew slowly succumbing to a depression and guilt so deep that no one could save him.
In the first 150 pages the mystery unfolds slowly and at the perfect pace. The events are well-timed, the characters ring true, and the story develops an intricate and multi-layered complexity that is a feat in itself. However, as soon as we hear the story of what happened on that Nigerian beach (and I won’t tell it here, because I truly think it is worth reading), the rest of the story seems forced. It was the event on that Nigerian beach that changed the characters’ lives, but for some reason the author felt it necessary to change the characters’ lives even further. I think this is a case of the contemporary writer fearing the NOVELLA.
A novella is a short albeit powerful piece of fiction. It is sometimes described as a long short story. The main difference between a novel and a short story is the development of character. You don’t get to spend so much time with the characters in short stories and novellas, but everything is charged with meaning. A bird doesn’t fly unless it has some symbolic reason for doing so. Contemporary authors tend to cleave (pun may be intended) to their characters so long that they ring them dry of meaning. Let’s consider the powerful novellas of the past: Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, The Lifted Veil by George Eliot. These stories absolutely did not need length to have an impact. Cleave should have taken a lesson from his greater predecessors.
If Little Bee had been left a novella I contend that it could have been one of the most powerful works of fiction today, and it could have gone down as a classic. However, tacking on the end (and I call it tacking on because the characters hardly even sound the same, the decisions they make are superficial, and the imagery goes sadly flat) has forced me to categorize it as yet one more mediocre work of contemporary fiction that I won’t be reading again. It’s such a pity, really, that a fantastic book was muddied because the author didn’t know when to let the story end – at its natural point. Sure, it would have been a depressing read (Cleave instead ends the story with an uplifting scene on an African beach, a laughable attempt at an esoteric parallel of the first beach experience), but at least it would have left the reader with a satisfying urge to take courage in a world full of darkness.