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Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl Book Reviews for 5/23/09

Megan Sukys/Dave Beck

I was laughing pretty much all the time I was reading Terry Darlington's delightful "Narrow Dog to Indian River" (Delta, 2009). Despite their ages (70s) and the fact that it had never been done before, Terry and his wife Monica leave their home in Stone, England to take their narrowboat, Phyllis May (named for Terry's mother, who, though many years dead, sometimes reappears in odd places), on the 1,150 mile Intercoastal Waterway from Virginia down to the Gulf of Mexico, accompanied by their whippet, Jim. A narrowboat, as I learned, is also known as a canal boat; it's six feet, ten inches wide (Jim, the whippet, is about six inches wide) and 60 feet long (just imagine what it looks like!), with a top speed of 6.2 miles per hour. It's perfect for cruising the canals of Europe, but perhaps not so great for the open water that the Darlingtons will encounter on their journey. Nonetheless, the trio set out, encountering — as Terry relates in hilarious vignettes — ice storms, high seas, piranhas, chiggers, the southern phenomena of sweet tea, grits, good 'ole boys and their families and lots of that hospitality the region is known for (despite Jim's behavior at Christmas, which I'm still chuckling about). While I don't think I'm brave enough to ever reproduce the trip the Darlingtons made, reading this made me think about a) getting a whippet and b) taking a narrowboat trip through the canals in England.

When Sarah O'Rourke, the editor of a Vogue–ish monthly in Britain, takes her husband on a junket to a Nigerian resort in what she knows will likely be a futile attempt to save her marriage (futile because, in fact, she's not all that keen to), they become forever and fatally linked to the lives of two African sisters. We're pretty far into the novel before we learn what actually occurred that day on what was supposed to have been a bucolic beach. In fact, we first meet Little Bee, the youngest of the sisters, two years later after the events on the beach, when she's uneasily residing at a detention center in England. She is spooked by the past and, fearful of every encounter, always planning various ways to kill herself, should "the men" ever come near her again. The events in Nigeria, how (and why) Little Bee and Sarah reconnect in England, and what follows their reunion; form the basis of "Little Bee" (Simon & Schuster, 2009), an unforgettable novel by Chris Cleave. Cleave's writing is breathtaking and the story will, quite simply, break your heart. He moves readers effortlessly between the points of view of both women, so that we come to understand both Little Bee and Sarah's thoughts, as well as the various actions they are forced by choice and circumstance to take. Cleave's decision to make Sarah not always either totally admirable or even entirely likeable (although her actions on that beach in Nigeria seem to me to be honorable), goes a long way toward making her much more three-dimensional and real than many fictional characters seem to be. Because of the solid characterizations, the dynamite ending, and the particulars of the plot, "Little Bee" is an excellent choice for book groups.

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