I want to introduce a new feature to the blahg–book reviews structured around three summarizing adjectives. Unfortunately my first book review is for a book I didn’t really like. Several of my instructors in library school pointed out that it is a lot easier to talk about what’s wrong with something than what is good about it, so in this spirit I will try to make sure that at least one of the three adjectives in all reviews is not pejorative.
Three adjectives: maudlin, affected, well-intentioned
I came across Little Bee in the breakroom at work. There’s a small bookshelf tucked in the back corner behind the ice machine where people can leave books and magazines they are done with for others to pick up. I had accidentally left my current reading material at home one day (my hour-and-a-half commute is painful without adequate distraction) and Little Bee was the most promising looking offering on this little shelf.
Lets start with the description on the back of the book, which for some reason aims to draw the reader in with a twee and teasing tone that badly reflects the story’s actual alternate attempts to deliver folksy sapience and inflict heart-wrenching emotional stabs upon the reader. The back of the book tells us the plot is a super secret story about a chance encounter between two very different women, and if you tell anyone about the plot details before they have read it themselves you will be RUINING THE FUN. The story is actually a chronicle of a young Nigerian woman’s horrifying journey between her home country and England, and I guess the publisher decided it might as well be wrapped up as a super secret surprise because it is pretty well-worn territory. The busy western woman Sarah learns to deal with her complicated-but-by-comparison-uncomplicated western life after befriending the sage refugee girl Little Bee who has gone through horrible and graphically described circumstances that leave her hauntingly-wise-beyond-her-years.
IDK if there is a word that encompasses “using a character only as a plot device that tells you about the protagonist/drives the plot forward.” An example might be how Mercutio doesn’t really have much to do in Romeo and Juliet except to stand by Romeo as a true friend and (spoilers…) die. This is fine, because Mercutio is one of about two dozen characters and he’s in like three scenes. He doesn’t have to be all that fleshed out, because we get to know him only enough to basically like him and then react accordingly empathetically when he is killed.
This device is not fine when the character-who-is-basically-just-a-plot-device is a constant presence in the story. Sarah’s son, Charlie, basically exists to be adorable, to be ignored, and to then be extremely valued after something-horrible almost happens to him. His “child-like” grammar is kind of like the cutesy backwards R on the Toys’R’Us sign. It’s a signal that he is a child, but it felt unrealistic to me, and it made him feel much more like a symbol than a character you can care about. As a result, when the something-horrible seems to have happened to him, it’s hard to really care or get beyond the obvious fact that it is a plot device for Sarah to reanalyze her priorities.
Maybe most author’s perspectives are affected to some degree, unless you are writing something semi-autobiographical. I wasn’t convinced by the affected perspective of a young refugee woman though–especially in the portions devoted to Little Bee’s ideas about how to “explain” England to her friends in the village. Likewise the kid Charlie’s affected “bad grammar” tone was unrealistic, and it distracted from the story by making me wonder whether the author has spent much time with very many children.
Despite the sticky-sweet delivery, the issues the author addresses in the story–refugees’ rights and the terror of being sent back to a country where almost certain death awaits–are important and real. There are several kind of “meta” feeling points. Little Bee observes that people in the “developed” world enjoy watching scary movies and reading horrifying stories because they do not have any real terror in their own lives. The English woman character is the editor of a magazine, and she struggles with the fact that she wants to write about important social issues but knows frivolous topics will get more readers. And maybe these instances are an indication that the author is well aware that this story is a perfect example of wrapping an important social issue up with a cute cover, a twee blurb, and events within that will satisfactorily horrify its generally blase western audience while secretly getting them to think more about important issues affecting other people.
In spite of these good intentions, Little Bee left me feeling annoyed. I think the novel was aiming for a similar feeling to Dave Eggers’ What is the What, which really enjoyed. I think the difference between Little Bee and What is the What is that while they deal with somewhat similar topics (refugees from conflict-ridden and war-torn African countries recalling their journeys and how they react to the western culture they now find themselves in), What is the What is based on an actual story and as far as I can tell, Little Bee is not. Unfortunately, the writing wasn’t good enough to transport me or suspend my disbelief.