In my haste last week, I omitted what for me was the best novel of the year–Little Bee by Brit novelist Chris Cleave–a book so good on so many levels that it deserves a column of its own.
First, a note about one of my quirks. I get much of my history, my world view, from novels. Why is this? you wonder. Perhaps part of me believes that fiction is often truer than journalism–particularly what passes as journalism these days.
Take as an example Gone With the Wind. All her life, Margaret Mitchell was steeped in the Civil War. She grew up listening to the stories of people who were there. Like any southerner of her time, Mitchell knew every battle, every general, every nuance of the war that affected her tribe. Moved to write about it, she told the Civil War story from a woman’s perspective and with the undeniable voice of authority. Who can not feel the horror of the burning of Atlanta, smell the fear when Melanie raises that gun, or witness the fallout from the destruction of an entire way of life?
With the same certainty, John Le Carre’s novels about British spycraft during the Cold War, Hemingway’s and Rilke’s accounts of World War II, Herman Wouk’s Winds of War andWar and Remembrance (World War II) all have added depth to my understanding of the world around me from the people who witnessed and participated in them. What about Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Steinbeck, and a host of others including the fine novelists I mentioned in previous blogs? We may be telling ‘lies’ in fiction–but the best fiction writers tell true lies.
Chris Cleave is such an author. Through the eyes of a Nigerian refugee who calls herself Little Bee, Cleave tells a daunting tale of persecution, heroism, greed, and corruption. The story opens on the day an illegal Nigerian immigrant, Little Bee, is released from a British refugee center on the outskirts of London. After two years in the center, Little Bee has taught herself the Queen’s English. And, though a realist, she is hopeful. She has the name and phone number of a couple she met on a beach in Nigeria.
Little Bee is a delightful heroine–resourceful, humorous, kind, uncannily observant. And yet she has a dark past. Why else, after all, would a 14-year-old girl stow away on a cargo ship to leave her homeland? As the story unfolds, another protagonist manifests–Sarah, wife of an editorial writer for the Times; editor herself of a London fashion magazine; mother of a small, emotionally damaged child; mistress of a civil servant.
I will leave you to the rest of it–the wrenching stories of these two unlikely cohorts and the truths their journeys reveal.
Cleave lived for several years in Nigeria near the beach in we visit in the novel. For some time he supported himself by working in the dining hall of a British refugee center. He is a former columnist for The Guardian newspaper in London. At a reading at Powell’s last winter he told us much more about his subject matter than is revealed in the book. Like Little Bee, he approaches life with wit, realism, and compassion to those around him. This is his second novel and I cannot wait to see what comes next.