Several years ago a friend of mine breathlessly begged me to read a novel she had just finished. “I’m not going to tell you what it’s about except to say you have to read it.”
So I picked up “Little Bee” by Chris Cleve. Here’s the quote from the flap inside the dust cover: “We don’t want to tell you too much about this book. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this: It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific. The story starts there, but the book doesn’t. And it’s what happens afterward that is most important. Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell everyone about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.” A little too clever, but, OK, they had me.
Then I started reading this tedious, untidy novel peopled with stupid characters I didn’t care about entangled in a plot that had little point. It’s memorable to me only in that I wished I had stopped reading after the dust cover, as it was the most interesting aspect of the book.
So that put me off Cleve, who’s since written three much-lauded novels, including last year’s “Everyone Brave is Forgiven,” an international bestseller probably destined to become a movie. But last summer everyone was reading “Everyone Brave,” though for some reason I kept confusing it with “All the Light We Cannot See” and “The Light Between Oceans” and even with “We Are Not Ourselves” because, I think, the covers seemed so similar. Anyhoo. I had heard good things and wanted something light and I stumbled across this novel at the library so I brought it home.
I generally find novels set during Dubya Dubya Eye Eye are formulaic. There are Good People and Bad People and very few shades of grey; the Americans are all Heroes, all Germans bad, blah blah, so I avoid them. Of course by avoiding them, I’m further solidifying my stereotype that these novels are crap, so if you have any recommendations, leave them in the comments below. I would recommend “A Meal in Winter,” though; I still think about it.
Anyway, back to the book. Set in England—where, to me, books about The Big One make sense, as there’s a human story to tell. A set of four impossibly young people are thrown together by the war, their youth, the excitement and the times. Mary, Hilda, Tom and Alistair will all be tested and discover a courage inside that had never been called on before.
What I like about this book is that it kept surprising me. Characters we grow to like are suddenly killed—this is war, I know, but in WWII novels the Heroes usually last until the end—leaving the others to pick up the pieces.
I also like the ambiguity of the characters—Mary and Hilda would do whatever it takes to protect the other, but they don’t like each other very much. Tom and Mary fall in love, but almost because it seemed expected that they do, it being wartime and all.
Even the climax, the coming together of two lovers (because this is ultimately a love story, inspired by Cleve’s grandparents’ wartime romance), is halting and awkward, the way it would likely be when two people who barely know each other—and have no idea how the war has changed the other—anticipate a future together, in whatever way it might happen.
And Cleve is a wonderful writer—a scene right at the beginning in which Tom and Alistair chat while Tom makes jam is, for some reason, tense and wonderful. Other scenes, too, where much more is at stake are riveting.
That’s not to say the book’s great. There are long, boring stretches, and the dialogue is so stilted I was constantly having to say the words aloud to figure out what the hell they were saying. There is also a subplot involving racism that feels a bit tacked on.
I can’t find a pithy way to end this review so I’ll just encourage everyone to do something kind for another person today.