Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Little Bee

Little Bee by Chris Cleave
March 15, 2011

Today we had a good discussion about this book at our book club, and I want to make some notes about our response.
A quick summary would be to say that we all enjoyed this book, even though we felt it has several flaws.
Why did we enjoy it?
~It brings an important message about the plight of refugees trying to enter 1st-world countries and made us wonder what refugee centres are like in Canada. Our interest was aroused in the topic.
~ We found it moving and the characterisation memorable if not always convincing.
~We enjoyed Cleave’s elegant writing style.
~We sympathised with Little Bee and her situation.
~We enjoyed the complexity of the character, Sarah.
~We found the themes interesting. The treatment of refugees is the main theme, but we also discussed some other themes in the book:
~Globalization and how open borders apply to money and ideas but not to people. The current unrest in autocratic Arabic countries is an example of the new face of globalization.
~Personal accountability and the responsibility of the British characters to the situation of the Nigerian girl.
Our discussion ranged over several aspects of the book. We talked about the dual narrative which was distracting for some and decided that as the book is the story of two worlds, it was appropriate to hear it from two points of view.
We talked about Cleave’s challenge in adopting female voices to tell his story, remembered other books we had read in which a male author spoke through women, and decided that he had done a convincing job.
We found the character of Sarah interesting and found many scenes in which she displayed an impulsivity that we decided was her driving personality trait.
We felt there is a lot of coincidence in the plot, especially the contrived setting of the ending, on the same beach where the story started.
We found that the character of Little Bee, while very sympathetic, was not consistent. We found it surprising that she was able to manipulate Lawrence and behave so appropriately at the daycare centre and yet lose her cool with the policeman and use such inappropriate language with the taxi driver. She berated herself for not calling the police when Andrew was hanging himself and yet she did not know how to call them when Charlie went missing. We found the whole theme of her responsibility in Andrew’s death was unconvincing as we felt that she made strong efforts to save him within the limits of her ability.
Some members had read about the author and we were pleased to find out that he had researched his topic thoroughly and spent a summer working in a British refugee facility.
We agreed that the novel is a good organ for publicizing human rights issues that remain statistics when they are reported in a news format.
We discussed the difference between novels that depict gratuitous violence such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the horrific violence in the rape and murder scene of Little Bee’s sister, which was terrible to read but yet necessary to understand the danger of the character’s situation.
We were surprised by the internet reviewers who described the book’s ending as hopeful. We were unanimously certain that Little Bee was captured by the soldiers and would be tortured and killed. We found the book to be ultimately depressing because all efforts to save Little Bee failed. Furthermore, we were disappointed with the author who at the end shifted his theme from atrocities and the plight of the weak and intertribal warfare in Africa to focus on a future when black and white children would play together. The conclusion did not arise from the previous concerns of the novel and left the readers unsatisfied.
For all the faults that we found in characterisation and plot, we hated to pick the book apart because we all enjoyed reading it, found it moving, enjoyed the prose, and would recommend it to others.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Nine hundred and thirty three pages, and I loved them all. Prior to writing my own review, I did a little web surfing and discovered that on amazon.com there are 438 reviews, 312 of them five-star! It’s clearly the kind of book that people respond to. Roberts has his own website, and Wikipedia has a plot summary and list of characters (quite an achievement.) With so much already said, I will just mention some of the reasons why I kept on reading.
I loved the way Roberts creates the setting, Bombay. The city should really be added to the list of characters. Clearly, Roberts himself loves the city in all its many aspects. Having had my heart broken in A Fine Balance, I loved reading about the joy that people can find when living in the direst conditions. Reduced to the worst poverty imaginable, Roberts’ slum-dwellers possess pride and loyalty, creativity, patience, self-respect, a sense of community and a commitment to their fellows. Roberts celebrates their strengths rather than focusing on their neediness.
I loved the characters because each one had his own complexity. Each one had a bit of wisdom to offer, had strengths and weaknesses, was dealing with a clouded past and was fighting his own way to happiness.
I loved the questions posed by these characters. Karla, the main love interest, felt loyalty to the mafia boss who had rescued her from a nervous breakdown and yet wanted to break free from him. Permanently scarred by her murder of a man who abused her, her emotions are permanently numbed, she is unable to feel for anybody and uses people without compunction. We understand her trauma, condemn her manipulativeness and hope for her redemption.
Khaderbai, the mafia boss is another complex character. He is capable of great love, he supports his followers, he is wise and continues to search for truth with a spiritual teacher, he is principled in his refusal to deal in drugs and prostitution, and yet he believes that the end justifies the means and orders the murder of a loyal follower in order to consolidate the power of his empire and takes advantage of the loyalty of his followers by taking them on a dangerous mission to Afghanistan in order to fulfill a personal promise.
Abdullah is a dangerous killer, but is capable of fierce loyalty.
I loved the pacing of the book. Each chapter was action-packed but book-ended with philosophical reflections, interspersed with poetic descriptions and punctuated with episodes which described life in the slums, techniques of passport forgery, the atmosphere in popular bars or gyms, the deliberations of the mafia council, Bollywood productions, and on and on. The appeal of the book is not purely narrative. There is much to ponder, and many images to conjure. The pace is comfortable, and after a few chapters, one is happy to put down the book and think about it for awhile.
There is a lot to learn from this book. The descriptions of prison conditions and slavery in brothels was alarming. The operation of the mafia was interesting. The excursion to Afghanistan during the Russian regime gave pertinent background to the current situation in that country. And the setting of Bombay, in its many quarters and moods, gave me a new understanding of this complex and foreign city.
Many of the experiences in Roberts own life are paralleled in his book, and although it is not strictly autobiographical, the descriptions and characters have an authenticity and originality that we feel is genuine. He has taken us to a place which we will never forget, and we are wiser for having met his characters and visited his parts of the world.

Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth
Ken Follett

At 1007 pages, this book is a doorstop, and a page turner. It took over my life for several weeks, and what pulled me in was narrative. Like his character, Jack the jongleur, Ken Follett is an excellent storyteller. The events fold neatly into each other, each one sequencing logically from the previous.
We know, for instance, that Aliena, daughter of the Earl of Shiring, is the character best suited to manage her father’s estate. Although she is a woman, this seems to be her destiny. Seamlessly, Follett creates in Richard, her brother and rightful heir, a character who excels in the skills of war but is a poor manager, and has him intervene to save his sister from an assault by her estranged husband, an intervention he is driven to make because of his memories of his inability to save her at the beginning of the novel when he was a young and spineless boy. Thus an event at the beginning of the novel is woven into the concluding narrative. But how to remove Richard from his role as earl? Follett brings back his character, William, whom we can always count on for nefarious deeds. William, who at this point is a sheriff, tries to arrest Richard for murdering Alfred, the husband, as this is the middle ages and men can legally rape their wives. Richard is weak and ineffective, but he can’t meet an untimely end because he is the loyal brother of the heroine. To the rescue comes Prior Philip, the idea man. Richard is absolved of his crime by leading a crusade to the Holy Land where he can spend the rest of his life being a hero at fighting, which he loves, and Aliena will manage the estate in his absence. A dozen years later Richard dies in the Holy Land and his nephew, Aliena’s son, tutored in estate management by his mother, inherits the title of Earl. In the meantime, Philip, an ally of Aliena’s, has been able to finish construction of his cathedral with stones from the quarry on her estate. Every event is logical and evolves naturally from preceding ones with a craft that is never overstrained.
Setting is another strength of this book. Anyone who has visited a Gothic cathedral has wondered about the genius of the architects, the development of the concept, the methods of construction and the lives of the workers. Follett has done his homework and brought the 11th century to life, with the shifting loyalties at court, the power struggle between church and state, the fragmentation of power within those entities, the relationship between England and the Continent, and the challenges of living in a country where there is civil unrest. Follett makes a strong commentary on the debilitating effects of civil war and the concomitant lack of law and order in absence of strong leadership, which extends beyond his particular setting of the war between Stephen and Maud.
Character development, however, is not Follett’s strength. He creates the characters he needs to drive his plot, gives then the strengths and weaknesses that will motivate their actions, dresses then up like paper dolls, and has words come out of their mouths like bubbles in a comic strip. He doesn’t love his characters, he needs them to tell his story. For such a long book, there are really not very many characters, and personally I got tired of the ever virtuous and sometimes introspective Prior Philip, always the problem solver in any crisis, and I wished that we could have some other villains besides Waleran Bigod and William of various estates of life. Whenever Follett needs a resolution, he turns to Philip, and when he needs some plot complication, he turns to these two “bad guys” whose motives were established at the beginning of the book and remain static throughout.
Character development is an impediment in a tale with so many complications, but I would have liked to have heard more about Jack’s reunion with his grandmother in France; seeking out his family was one of the reasons he went to the continent. Likewise, I would have liked to know what effect the revelation about Jonathan’s parentage had on him and his little sister, Martha. Follett cannot find a niche for poor little Martha, and I feel sorry that she has been neglected by him.
Nevertheless, this novel has been a bestseller since it was published in 1989 and cannot be dismissed despite its faults. It is a classic in the ‘good yarn’ genre of literature, and what’s wrong with a good tale?
Despite the predictability of some of its plot turns and the woodenness of its characters, its strength is in the story and the delighted, “Of course!” that we feel as its scenes unfold.