Sunday, March 08, 2009

'Little Bee' straddles poverty, globalization, guilt

Chris Cleave is destiny's child, granted not the favorite. Cleave's first novel, Incendiary, about an al-Qaeda attack on a London football stadium, arrived in bookstores on the morning of July 7, 2005, the day terrorists stormed the London Tube and killed more than 50 people and injured close to 700. The book, unsurprisingly, did not set the cash registers jingling.

While such an experience may daunt a less brave writer — or worse, affect the quality of his subsequent work — Cleave is not that writer. His second outing, Little Bee, is a thought-provoking examination of the collision of two diverse cultures. The Western gaze on the Dark Continent has launched a stable of Conradian books, but seldom does one come across a work that so freely straddles poverty, globalization and the workings of post-colonial guilt.

The pivot around which Little Bee turns is the chance encounter on a Nigerian beach between a 16-year-old local and an English couple on holiday.

Andrew O'Rourke is a celebrated journalist battling a private crisis that his wife, Sarah, a magazine editor, cannot be bothered with. Safe in her private world that comprises a rollicking extra-marital affair and her Batman-obsessed son Charlie, Sarah's life is set to turn topsy-turvy by the arrival of young Nigerian Little Bee at her doorstep.

The book begins with Little Bee's harrowing account of an immigration center in Essex where, chiefly, she must keep herself safe from the advances of men. But there is something darker behind her sadness that, Cleave hints, has some relation to the O'Rourkes — the couple from that long-ago encounter on the beach.

Cleave's ability to keep the book's compass pointed to that incident — a brilliant set piece of effortless violence — is reminiscent of John Banville. But his leanings are expressly political. When in alternate chapters, we hear the tragic voice of Sarah, the great divide between Africa and the West is immediately apparent.

Yet Cleave is too nuanced a writer to convey that life in the English suburbs is "easier" than the blood and toil on African streets. Apart from the writing, this is brought out in the strange neuroses that the O'Rourkes inhabit. In due course, Andrew commits suicide, while Charlie falls deeper into the abyss of his strange imagination.

By now, the book is on course to a startling finish. Cleave, unsatisfyingly, falters a little, dipping into contrived plot devices and the too-easy pull of melodrama. But the end is justifiably happy in a book that would not do without redemption. To that extent, and given the overall tenor of this work, Little Bee is a loud shout of talent.

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This review appeared in Chicago Sun Times.

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