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Agnes Trussel is a surprisingly innocent young woman for having grown up in the country with parents who produce new offspring nearly every year. She is half seduced, half raped by the village bully, and when she discovers that he has made her pregnant she considers her options and, given heart by an unexpected windfall, chooses to leave home and travel to London rather than be forced into marrying her child's father. She finds herself at the door of a maker of fireworks, begging for the job of housekeeper, but hired on as his assistant instead. And from that moment, a world of new ideas is opened to her.

If I have one quibble with the book it's that Agnes is a bit too wonderful -- she exists on the thin, sharp edge of being a Mary Sue -- a beautiful young woman who doesn't realize she's beautiful, who is smart and resourceful, and who has a mot juste for every occasion. Borodale does manage to balance these qualities with some interesting flaws, including a stunning emotional obtuseness. And yet in spite of both her flaws and her good qualities, Agnes is interesting enough as a character to carry the story. However, for me, the most interesting character of the lot is John Blacklock, who in many ways remains a mystery, even to Agnes. His emotional life becomes clearer and deeper as the story progresses, and yet we can never quite come to know him. He is, like his fireworks, a flame that burns brilliantly but all-too-quickly. And as he says of the pyrotechnics themselves, the silence they carry within them is their true beauty.

Both Agnes and John are working to bring something new into the world. This is the story of how they each go about their work, together and yet always in the end, isolated from the rest of the world and even from each other. In fact, most of the books' characters are complex and interesting, though it's not always immediately apparent. They require patience, too, as does a plot which never quite becomes a romance or mystery, or strays into any other literary genre. It can sometimes be slow, sometimes even difficult, but I found it eminently worth the time, and in fact read the book in two long sittings.

And yes, it made me cry. That doesn't happen often, and I'm not going to say why it did for fear of spoiling the reader. Let me just say that it touched a deep and resonant chord in me with its slow sadness, and ultimate reaffirmation of life.
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Honestly I'm not entirely sure what to say about this book because if I was 12 years old I would have loved it.  Seriously I'd have eaten it up and looked for more.  But Nelson isn't marketing this as a juvenile or even a young adult book and as such I find myself hard pressed to give it more than a middling rating. 

It's a book which presupposes that the reader knows virtually nothing, and while I'm the first to bemoan the state of education in this country I find it hard to believe that most people get out of high school without knowing who the Vikings were. Yet Merkle's very first sidebar explains them to the reader.  Seriously, he seems to think it necessary to tell his readers that Vikings were "Scandinavian men who traveled on trading and raiding expeditions..."  These sidebars, which are fairly annoying -- whatever happened to footnotes? -- litter the beginning of the book, but calm down as the story progresses.  They mostly add very little to the narrative and can easily be skipped unless you really don't know anything about history, though I have to confess that some of them are mildly interesting.  The one about berserkers was fascinating even if it was intrusive.

For the rest, I have to admit that I didn't find the narrative particularly enthralling.  In addition to the sidebars, there are odd asides about things like Viking long boats and King Alfred's piles.  I'm not kidding about this last, and frankly I could've gone my whole life not having to read about them.  Even some of the sidebars seem weirder than others.  The one explaining that the town of Nottingham used to be known as "Snotengaham" after a Chieftain named "Snot." was sort of funny, albeit in the manner of, well, a 12 year old.

While I recognize that all historians have an agenda, or take sides... whatever, one of the less appealing lenses, for me at least, is a blatantly religious one.  And Merkle's lens is very, very Christian.  I'll let each reader judge for him or herself how reliable that's likely to be in the retelling of historical fact.  I tend to find it somewhat suspect when it's this obvious. And in light of all the other issues noted above, it just adds to my feeling that I can't really recommend this as a good popular history for adults.  If Nelson was going to market it for juveniles or young adults I'd be more enthusiastic, but for adults to wade through a narrative that seems oddly scattered, parenthetical and burdened with heavy religious overtones?  I honestly don't think it has enough to offer to justify that time and effort.
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Honestly I don't know what people are thinking when they market books anymore. The blurb on this book would have you believe that it's not only a laugh riot -- except for the beach scene which is "horrific" -- but that it's so remarkably written and in some way so easy to spoil that it all but swears the reader to a code of silence. And in fact, it's none of those things. All those marketing ploys actually do a disservice to an excellent book and if I were the author, I'd hate it that my work was being so misrepresented.

Briefly, "Little Bee" is about a young Nigerian refugee whose very existence changes the lives of a group of English citizens in dramatic ways. It's a good story and well-written but it would be silly of me to say that I don't want to tell you more because I don't want to spoil it for you. That would feel like me saying "I have NO idea what this is about."

It's about sadness. Really. It's not funny, except perhaps in small details where you might find yourself smiling ruefully. It's a sad book filled with sad and often thoughtless people. It's about how we cover our sadness with layers of so-called civilization, wrap our fears in popular culture, and never ever have the opportunity to face any of it and learn to rise above. Little Bee knows how to rise above. She's known how to do it her whole life because there's nowhere to hide in her country. Poverty, abuse and death are common where she is from, and if you don't want them to destroy you, they must be transcended.

I read the first two chapters just waiting for the comedy to begin. I waited for the beach scene with a measure of anxiety. I waited for some enormous surprise which I would long to tell others, but would keep to myself out of a sense of reader's decency. And each time, I found the truth to be something quite different. I'm actually happy about that because, for me at least, it means I was reading a book that might not be dismissed in a year or even a month as some pop cultural flash. It's a book which should make you think about the world and your place in it, and about what we owe to one another as human beings on this increasingly small, spinning globe.

I found it profoundly moving.

Little Bee: A Novel


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Tracy Rowan

August 2013

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