A few years ago my mother, acutely tuned into my taste in reading material, gifted me Little Bee by Chris Cleave. If that book had come with a straw it simply would not be on my bookshelf today. I would have slurped it down in giant gulps. Even without the straw I felt like I had inhaled that book into my very veins. I remember sitting on the edge of my bed at one point, so unhinged and so emotionally invested in the characters, in the beautiful melodic and tragic but strong voice of Little Bee, and in the guilt-riddled narrative of a British woman’s struggle with her own failures, that I forgot momentarily to lean back, to relax, that it was just a story. More surprisingly, it was only at the end of the book that I took a moment to consider that a man had written these two extremely compelling female voices. One Nigerian and one European. The characters are so extremely different, yet they are both two powerful female heroines in their extremely heart-rending lives. A story of human compassion, dislocation and desolation, I cried continuously. Brilliant. Simply brilliant.
A few months later, still reeling from the experience of Little Bee, I slunk into a local bookshop and promptly slunk out with a copy of Incendiary, desperate again, to climb up into bed and become consumed inside the pages of this man’s fictional landscapes. And BOOM (pun intended), as expected, off I went.
So I developed this habit of comparing current things I’ve enjoyed reading to the literary fiction prowess of Chris Cleave on a regular basis and so my boyfriend gifted me Gold last year. It sat in my pile of books to be read under The Book Thief.
Perhaps this did it a small injustice, because I read The Book Thief before I read Gold. And possibly because Little Bee and Incendiary had left such an indelible mark on me.
It just seemed like Gold didn’t quite resonate with all the awesomeness (yes, I just used that word seriously) that his first two books had captured so effortlessly.
Now this is not to say that the writing was not excellent because it was, and that the characters and story were not interesting. They certainly were those things. Sophia wrenches at your heartstrings with every Star Wars reference to ratify a young girls battle with a life threatening disease. You rally with her and want to whisper into the ears of her parents constantly. Kate seems like a sucker for punishment and has a capacity for empathy that borders on almost superhuman. While Zoe seems to take the road most travelled, one of blind self-gratification and instant satisfaction, she also vibrates with a certain humanity that is present in all of us. They are certainly extremely human characters in extremely real and difficult situations.
So why do I feel like this is the least of Chris Cleaves apostles?
My ex had read Little Bee and had come back to me in the end, with the words, “I don’t see the point of this book. There was just so much suffering. It felt like torture.”
I know quite a few people who share the feeling that, “If it’s not rainbows and happy endings, then I don’t want to read it.” Truth be told, I think I’m the complete opposite of this. I enjoy the agonies of human struggle and I feel like failures are part of life. It textures in more reality to me, more honesty.
Like Nabokov said, “Some people—and I am one of them—hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically.” This is particularly so for me when the ending feels almost forced into a happy conclusion.
And perhaps this is why Gold felt almost anti-climatic as it wound down. The conclusion (and I don’t want to give away any spoilers) feels almost absurdly fair. Is real life really that just? Or did someone say to Chris Cleave, “Well your last two books were so dark, maybe you should write something a little happier,” and thus we got this mildly cliché ending, that while I smiled and bounced out of bed after reading, didn’t leave me with any profound sense of life in earnest.
Then again, this is just my opinion, and I still gave the book four stars, and I’m absolutely still going to purchase his upcoming book.