Monday, April 30, 2012
I so wanted to love this book. I wanted so bad to love what I was sure would be subtle political commentary. I wanted to learn more about the global economy and to suffer along with characters who try in vain to buck a system of racism and dictatorship.
And I tried. I really did. I re-read paragraphs I didn't like. I put off reviewing the novel so that I could really ruminate on it. I forced my bookclub to talk about it for a good hour longer than usual.
Despite the premise and timeliness of the subject, the cited research and constant presence on the wall of Employee Recommendations at my favorite indie bookstore, I just could not bring myself to care about any of the characters. At first I was sure that the lack of connection I felt to the writing had to do with the British stoicism that must, must be a characteristic of all UK writers. The uninspired dialogue must have been intended to be hyper-realistic. I tried to see the essence of innocence, femininity, and strength that embody the cover art between the lines of text. The problem I think, is that with such sensitive subject matter - the impact of war on individuals and separation between first- and third-world priorities - we as everyday first-world readers need our writers to lead us through the muck and mire. I'm not saying I want my every opinion shaped by left-leaning citizen journalists, but I do need a clearer picture of the emotions that true globalism and transparency will inevitably bring to the surface.
In reality, emotional detachment may be the last defense of the abused and in-pain, but it doesn't work here. I can only tell myself so many times that the emotional wall put up by the characters is necessary to protect them from hurting each other. We need emotions to fall in love with characters, especially with the main character - the story-teller and narrator - Little Bee. But if the emotions are there somewhere, written into the back story by Chris Cleave, we don't get to see it, and subsequently, the humanity of Little Bee is lost not only on her enemies, but on us readers.
No amount of absurd poetic flashbacks (Page 198) or commentary on the effects of sunshine (Page 185) can fill the gap left by cold, flat accounts of fear, death and rape (Page 131).
As a piece on the oil trade and process of refugee detainment, the text begins to take on some validity. After a tiny bit research on the underlying issues of war in Nigeria, we found that much like Kony 2012, the basic information may be true, but it is a much more complex issue than presented. It begs the question, If 300,000 people read Little Bee, and begin to care about the cause and effect of war in Africa, even if they only get 10% of the story - is that better than only 130,000 people reading a heavier-context Salon.com article? Until we can mass educate the public on every single aspect of the issues that matter, maybe it is.
There is a sentence on page 181 that made a lasting impression on me; I've heard the same from others. "The gasoline flowing through the pump made a high-pitched sound, as if the screaming of my family was still dissolved in it. The nozzle of the gasoline hose went right inside the fuel tank of Sarah’s car, so that the transfer of the fluid was hidden. I still do not know what gasoline truly looks like. If it looks the way it smells on a rainy morning, then I suppose it must flash like the most brilliant happiness, so intense that you would go blind or crazy if you even looked at it. Maybe that is why they do not let us see gasoline."
I suppose if I had to look at the black sludge each time I filled my tank - if I had to watch the Styrofoam form on top of crude oil as it is refined - I might never drive, or drink gas station coffee again. If the government truly wants us to lose our dependence on fossil fuel, they might consider installing transparent hoses at the pump.
I can't endorse Little Bee as the a-MAZ-ing, engaging, intelligent novel that I wanted, and I still think there was something lost in translation as British to American style concerns - but I do hope that great authors continue to attempt to use fiction to drawn attention to important issues.