This week’s Friday Read was chosen for two reasons: one – it follows the theme I’m trying to go with this next little while of reviewing stories featuring people who are not literary versions of myself (aka straight, cis-gendered, neurotypical white-girls) and two – it’s written by a man. The second point might seem like a weird deciding factor seeing as how this blog is focusing on the ladies, and , so far, all but one of my reviewed books were written by women, but I feel like books about women written by people who are NOT women can be really important. Also, I am fascinated by authors who can convincingly write stories from the point of view of someone they almost literally can never be, cannot, in fact, even resemble. Chris Cleave, author of this week’s book, Little Bee is a middle-aged, white, British dude, and half of his book is told from the viewpoint of a teenage, Nigerian black girl. And I’m not sure, having only been two out of those four things, but I think he nails it? If you haven’t noticed already, I’m big on this idea of book magic, and this is another kind, this is the kind of book magic that lets a middle-aged British guy step into the skin of a teenage Nigerian girl. And it’s cool.
BUT more on that later. Right now, I’m going to do the book summary thing and tell you all a little bit about why I like this particular story so much. So! Somewhat paraphrasing from the book jacket (because it does a good job setting up the intrigue) this is the story of two women; the aforementioned Nigerian teen and title character Little Bee, and Sarah, an early-thirties, British, white, recently widowed mom-of-one. These two women meet on a Nigerian beach under some pretty messed up circumstances and one of them is forced to make a terrible choice. The consequences of said choice are what the novel is about and to really delve too deeply into the nitty gritty details would ruin the story for you, so I’m not going to do that.
That said, nothing is stopping me form going to what the book is about even if I can’t talk about what actually happens. Little Bee is, at its heart, a story about choice and consequence, and what happens when a person has their agency taken away held up against what a person chooses to do with their agency when they are in control. Both of the central women are powerless over certain aspects of their lives – Little Bee (not her real name) is on the run from immigration after crossing illegally into Britain while trying to flee her war torn village. Sarah’s husband as just committed suicide and her life – particularly her ability to manage her emotionally traumatized toddler son – is veering wildly off track. The two women’s lives are also mercilessly entwined, each one having some degree of power over the other. Little Bee’s control is always tenuous at best, given her illegal status, and also just by virtue of being a young African woman in a predominantly white neighborhood, but she makes up for this by being a strong, peaceful spirit who, while pretty much always terrified of what might happen to her, endeavours to be a person of good. Sarah, despite her privilege, is a little more messed up and a little less likely to do the right thing. Watching the pair of them navigate their odd relationship is nerve wracking and heart-warming.
The other central theme of the story is truth, and the telling of stories. Some terrible things happen to both Little Bee and Sarah. They witness, take part-in and are privy to some fairly awful stuff, and the when/why/how by which these truth are divulged shape the novel greatly. Each secret impacts someone else, just as each truth revealed at turns imposes or lifts a burden. Sarah, a writer, gradually comes to realize that Little Bee’s story is important, and that telling the truth about this young girl and how she came to be in Sarah’s life is necessary to show the world the stories that are unfolding right on their doorsteps, but that they are blind to. Knowledge is power, and the more you know, the more you are able to make a difference.
Little Bee and Sarah’s story ends on a questioning note, one that allows readers to draw their own conclusions. Despite this, it leaves you with a feeling of hope, as though you know more now yourself and so will be able to do something to change the world. And that’s a cool feeling for a book to leave you with.
And now I’m going to go back to the fact that this whole wonderful tale of these two fascinating women is told by a man. The quote that sums up my feelings about this is actually attributed to the last male author I reviewed (that’s Stephen King, in case you aren’t following along) and it goes as follows:
“I hate the assumption that you can’t write about something because you haven’t experienced it, and not just because it assumes a limit on the human imagination, which is basically limitless. It also suggests that some leaps of identification are impossible. I refuse to accept that, because it leads to the conclusion that real change is beyond us, and so is empathy. The idea is false on the evidence. Like shit, change happens.”
Like, PREACH STEPHEN KING, PREACH. When you write from the POV of someone who is “other” to you, someone whose life you have never and will never have lived, you are forced to examine the world the way that character would examine the world, and that teaches you, in turn, how to empathize with the people that character is portraying. When a middle-aged white guy chooses to write as a teenaged, female person of colour, he is opening himself up to learn about what it means to BE that person. He is choosing to say “this person’s story is important and I will slip into her skin as much as I am able to in order to make sure that this important story is told and done justice to.” And then, you and I, as readers, get to hear this story and for a moment WE are in the skin of that character. And that’s pretty freaking cool if you ask me.