Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Why I did not love Little Bee

I just read Little Bee by Chris Cleave. This book, which is now a couple of years old I believe, has received oodles of adulation. It's not a bad book, it's a decent book in many ways, but for me it fell short of the hype. For a number of reasons, but mostly these:

1. Although the story concerns a Nigerian woman who is an undocumented immigrant to England, a refugee from what the novel repeatedly refers to as "the oil wars," it is strangely apolitical. Yes, it is warmhearted and humane and yes, it implicitly rebukes the anti-immigrant campaigns and exposes their racism. These are not minor attributes, and so my comments are not meant as a big rant against a book that does more or less have its heart in the right place. But you finish reading this novel without a single piece of actual information about recent events in Nigeria, about the role of the oil companies in those events or for that matter which specific oil companies they are, or about what specifically these "oil wars" consist of beyond some vague narrative about villages being invaded and destroyed. It is such an invasion and such destruction from which the title character, Little Bee, has fled, but because the story is told from her individual perspective we are left without any broader context or understanding of the forces that have destroyed her life and her family's and her village's. Above all, how is British imperialism implicated? The reader has no idea. Certainly no idea of the long history of British colonialism in Nigeria or how British colonialism and its depredations led directly to Nigeria's current situation—nor, for that matter, do you really get a sense of what that situation is. You do get a very ugly picture of Nigerian soldiers. In fact, it is Africans who carry out the most terrible deeds depicted in this novel. The British who are portrayed negatively don't do or say anything nearly as terrible as the Africans.

2. Nor does any African (except dead ones, in Little Bee's memory) do or say anything fine and good to/for/about Little Bee as do the British characters, especially the main one, Sarah. This is a novel about human connection, about the coming together of, the coming of understanding and love between two women of different nationalities and classes and life stories, a petit-bourgeois white woman and an African refugee teenager who has lost everything, and about how the white woman's child is loved by both and serves sort of as the conduit between them. This is the level on which it reaches the reader, this is why, I think, so many people have loved it, and sure, that's all okay. Ultimately, though, especially at the novel's close, I was taken aback at how wholly this is the novel's message, this we-are-all-the-same-this-is-one-world message that is neither new nor unique nor informative nor challenging in any way, let alone any sort of contribution literarily or politically. Furthermore, the novel's final passages are troubling and, at least for me, leave an unpleasant taste. (Spoiler alert here.) At the end, Little Bee not only is going to lose her freedom and probably her life, and at the hands of Nigerians who, rather than the British imperialists, are the really bad bad guys in this novel, but she does so in the process of saving the little white child of the white woman who's tried to save her. Worst of all, Cleave has this young Nigerian woman, who has survived atrocities and witnessed the torture and murder of her beloved sister, invest the white child with all the hope and optimism and dreams of a better world:
I smiled down at Charlie, and I understood that he would be free now even if I would not. In this way the life that was in me would find its home in him now. … I smiled back at Charlie and I knew that the hopes of this whole human world could fit inside one soul.
Sigh. See what I'm saying here? What an ending, with the African woman sacrificing herself for the beloved white child who represents all that is pure and good, all hope for the future. (This in a scene on a beach that's filled with Nigerian children.) It's redolent of colonialist and orientalist and all that sort of literature, especially coming as it does as the coda that closes the story.

It's not inconceivable that a white British author could write a novel with an African protagonist that takes on globalization and migration and the wreckage wrought by imperialism and neocolonialism and make a real contribution with it. I just don't think Chris Cleave has done so with this novel. On the other hand, there are many fine fine Nigerian novelists who have told and are telling their own nation's stories. Readers looking for politically conscious, relevant fiction by and about Nigerians would do well to look to these artists, from the great, essential Chinua Achebe to younger voices like the terrifically talented Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.