Sunday, February 6, 2011

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

If you haven't read Little Bee by Chris Cleave, you're missing a terrific experience. A New York Times best seller, this novel was short-listed for the 2008 Costa Award for Best Novel. It breaks most of the rules agents list on their sites for what makes a novel worthy of representation.

Little Bee is the story of two women whose lives become intertwined through a single act of violence in Nigeria. Sarah, a white English woman, and her husband Andrew try to repair a damaged marriage on a vacation to Nigeria. On a walk along the beach, they meet Little Bee, a girl who was being chased by dogs and armed men.

Two years later, Sarah is back in England, raising her four-year-old son, Charlie, who decides he's Batman. He won't take off his Batman costume, because the "baddies" will win. Little Bee has just been released from a detention center for refugees seeking asylum and makes her way to Sarah's home. Let's just say, the situation becomes complicated when the reunion of the two women opens deep wounds and forces them to confront the blackness within each.

Cleave breaks several "rules" agents insiston: he uses two narrators, both speaking in first person; much of his dialogue is in dialect. Sarah, of course, speaks perfect English. Little Bee sometimes speaks with a Nigerian dialect, sometimes she speaks like Queen Elizabeth, particularly when she feels threatened by authorities.

And Charlie speaks his own language, always to be corrected by his mother. When Little Bee asks Charlie to take off his Batman costume, Charlie replies, "...if I is not in mine costume then I is not Batman."

Cleave maintains unique voices for each of the three main characters. Charlie never speaks correct English; Little Bee sometimes thinks in a Nigerian dialect. All are unique characters, fully rounded and completely sympathetic.

So, why does this novel meet the requirements posted on many agents' web sites? Because it is a literary novel, and most agents do not want to represent literary novels. Thank goodness one did. Little Bee is a book club favorite. It's easy to see why.

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