Little Bee by Chris Cleave, a British author and journalist whose childhood was at least partially in Cameroon, is one of the most moving, well-crafted novels that I have ever read, period. And it may be the best contemporary portrait of a poor, black girl that I have ever read. (Caveat: I am happy to hear suggestions of others. I want to read Dave Eggers’ book, which I hear is excellent, but that’s about a black boy in any case. My friend Dolen’s novel Wench is also terrific but that is historical fiction. )
The book asks readers not to give away too much of the plot, because the narrative’s power comes from how the story unfolds. I don’t know if that’s really true, but I’ll respect it.
My praise for Little Bee, my first-ever Sunday Read, comes even though it has two strikes against it from the knee-jerk liberal perspective. 1) It’s a book about two women, a Nigerian teenager and a bourgeois magazine editor, but it is written by a man, allowing it to take advantage of the women-driven book club industry but also avoid the condescending ghetto of women’s fiction. 2) The author is white and a main character is black, a historically-troublesome dynamic that calls to mind too many centuries of white people putting words in black people’s mouths.
But, quality is the best defense and Little Bee is great. I can’t find fault with an author who does what he does so well. I encourage Chris Cleave to write a book about a half-Asian, half-black girl with wealthy parents growing up in New York and Paris. That would be awesome! Then there would be two.
The conclusion to made me cry. Not for the protagonist, though. She finds satisfaction and an independent emotional power. This is an achievement that eludes so so so many people. No, I cried for the world. Because it is too stupid to honor her.
Thanks to Audie for recommending it.