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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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A Book A Week: Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Egad I am picky. A lot of people liked Little Bee by Chris Cleave, and there is much that is great about it, but I have a big problem with it that I can't ignore.

It's like two books, written by two different people. Chapters alternate between the voice of Little Bee, a young female survivor of horrific violence in Nigeria, and Sarah, the English woman who is her rescuer. Little Bee's voice is unique, thoughtful, moving, evocative, heart-wrenching. Sarah's voice is phony, clichéd and shallow. I am really in the dark about how Cleave can write so well as Little Bee and so badly as Sarah.

Of course we are supposed to think that Sarah is phony and shallow, because we need a contrast with Little Bee. But I could barely read Sarah's chapters.

Instead of the hyperrealism that we see in Little Bee's chapters, Sarah's are sketchy and unbelievable. Her husband dies and there is a funeral, but where are his parents? Her parents? Their siblings? It was the most unrealistic funeral chapter I've ever read. Other chapters have similar gaps and weaknesses, and read as if they were dashed off as drafts of chapters, instead of final versions. Cleave could have made Sarah phony and shallow and still provided some polish and verisimilitude.

Unfortunately you can't just read Little Bee's chapters and get the whole picture. Because Little Bee's story is so compelling I still recommend this book, but be prepared to skim Sarah's chapters.

Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.

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