Little Bee by Chris Cleave


Some books just hit you. Deep down in the gut, like someone’s rammed into you head first.

This book is one of those. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Little Bee
photo from


Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mini-plot summary: Sixteen-year-old Little Bee meets Sarah and her husband Andrew on a beach in Nigeria. What happens there changes all of their lives. Two years later, Little Bee is released from a detention center outside of London. She goes to find Andrew and Sarah, arriving at their home in time for another life-changing event.

And that’s all I am going to tell you about the plot, because I don’t want to give anything away.

But, like I said, I can’t stop thinking about this book. So I want to tell you something about it. Something that will make you go out and buy it/borrow it right this instant.

So let’s start with the writing.

I have very particular feelings about what constitutes “good” writing, I admit it. Which is TOTALLY SUBJECTIVE. “Good” to me might be “interminable” to you. Anyway, I have very distinct thoughts about style and pacing and flow. There are some books I just refuse to read because the writing grates on me. Either it’s too clichéd or too simplistic… Or it’s too self-conscious and overly-wrought. I think nothing bugs me more than writing that’s trying too hard to be literary or clever or beautiful. (Ahem. Note to self when editing your own overly-wrought, tries-too-hard-to-be-beautiful writing.)

Anyway, from the very first sentence, Little Bee is beautifully written. Some of the imagery is what I would describe as poetic. Which is not to say that it’s flowery or anything. I just think it’s extremely evocative. It shows you the world of this book in a new and utterly fresh (and utterly charming) manner.

Let me quote from the book, one of the most beautiful and romantic passages I’ve ever read:

“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. That is how big he was for me.”

This makes my heart ache, it is so apt and yet so freshly described.

Anyway. The writing. The beautifully-crafted phrases, the imagery, the metaphor. These alone are worth reading Little Bee.

But then there are the characters.

It’s a book of few characters. Really, the story is Sarah’s and Little Bee’s story. The others (Andrew, Lawrence, Batman, Clarissa) are sort of just along for the ride. Important in that they are responsible for a lot of what happens to Sarah and Little Bee throughout the novel. But it’s not really about them.

Sarah and Little Bee take turns narrating the novel, chapter by chapter. Which I know has become a little over-used of late, and no longer carries the power it had in Ulysses and As I Lay Dying or even in Everything Is Illuminated. But it works really well in Little Bee. Sarah and Little Bee come from different worlds. And you get to see how their lives join from both sides.

  • Sarah Summers: Sarah irritates me a little. She’s such a first world person, with first world problems and the first world belief that she can – and indeed is entitled to – fix everything. But I think what irritates me most is that she is so real. I could be Sarah, in the situation she found herself in. I hope I would be as brave as she is. As determined. I suspect I would be just as stupid, just as short-sighted, just as over-confident in my chances of making a difference.
  • Little Bee: This teenager is wise beyond her years. She’s seen and done things that no one should ever have to see or do, especially not a sixteen-year-old. She is funny and kind and surprisingly fierce (and not in a Christian Siriano way – but in a feisty little bulldog sort of way).
  • Batman: Yes, I said that Batman was a character in this book. That’s Sarah’s little boy, Charlie. He’s four. He wears his Batman costume at all times, except while bathing. He is the most realistic little boy, with his stubbornness and his sweetness and his complete inability to understand the world in any way except his own.
  • Andrew O’Rourke: Oh Andrew. I hate you and yet I understand why you did what you did.

And finally, there’s the plot.

This plot is the stuff of action movies. I think it would make for a super blockbuster film.

But it’s not pretty stuff, the things that happen in this book. It’s torturous. I could feel myself tensing up at certain points, knowing what would happen, not wanting to read on, willing it not to happen. Spoiler Alert: It happened anyway.

(Side Note: I’m not saying that the plot was in any way predictable. It was surprising and entirely captivating.)

There’s so much to think about once you’ve read this book…

  • The horrors that exist in the world. The way that we first worlders are so oblivious to what’s really happening.
  • What it means to be a woman. How vulnerable a state that can be. How strong it can make you.
  • The difference between right and wrong. How something can be wrong for you and your family but can still be right and necessary and good. How something can be wrong and still be justifiable. How something can be legal and “just” and still be so wrong.
  • What it is to be a family.
  • What it is to be afraid. How fear affects us. How we protect ourselves, and how we strive to protect others.
  • How impossible and necessary and difficult and critical it is to do something, even if it goes horribly horribly wrong.

Should you read it? Yes, yes God yes.

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