Chris Cleave: Victims of Terrorism…to Refugees…to Olympic Athletes

I discovered the British author, Chris Cleave, when I was in one of my “happy places” (the bookstore) and picked up Little Bee. As you can tell from the title of this post, Chris Cleave doesn’t exactly choose the lightest of topics. But that’s fine because I don’t always read fiction to escape. Sometimes, I need an author to slap me in the face a little—make it impossible for me to ever look at something the same way again.

But why am I writing about this author on a blog about volunteerism?

Topics: I just read Writers Digest’s interview with Chris Cleave in this September’s issue (Yay! I’m actually ahead since this is still the beginning of August) and several of his answers really struck me. His novels, he said, “really break down to two things: They put people in extreme situations, and then they ask those people what their answers are going to be to big ethical questions.”

For Little Bee the question was: How much of our comfortable lives should we give up to help people who have less than us?” Ooh, tremendous question—one I struggle with. And close to home, since my book (finished, but still chopping away at word count) is about what makes people volunteer to be international aid workers, leaving behind their comfortable lives to work in some of the world’s most dangerous and isolated places.

Skill: I’m also writing about Chris Cleave because in Little Bee, he wrote one of the best opening pages I’ve ever read. And trust me, as an aspiring writer, I’ve read a lot of first pages, analyzing how writers manage to hook readers right from the get-go. Chris Cleave does it in such an artful, skilled way, I found myself smiling as I read it…and then, re-read it twice more. A young girl, a Nigerian refugee in the UK, is wishing she were a British pound coin—jealous of where it can go that she cannot. How much of her current situation, her past, as well as her hopes, he gets across in such a short segment is masterful.

Didn’t stop with words: Chris Cleave wrote on the subject of refugees and now advocates for asylum seekers. In his new book Gold (which I have yet to read, but definitely will) the two main characters are Olympic athletes—one of whom has a daughter with leukemia. Chris now fundraises for leukemia research. I love this sort of follow-thru…words in action.

Side note: Publication for Gold was obviously well-timed with the Olympics. Yet, his first book, Incendiary, had uncanny timing in a different way. It came out the day of the London bombings in 2005 and was promptly pulled back off the shelves for its terrorist subject matter. (Must’ve been a stab to the heart for the author.) Obviously, it found its way back, promoted by people unafraid to look difficult subjects in the face—and paradoxically find a source of hope rather than a deeper dirt-pummeling.

Do you read books that you know will make you uncomfortable? That will likely alter your perspective or make you aware of something that does not have an easy solution? What books have had the greatest impact on you?


14 comments on “Chris Cleave: Victims of Terrorism…to Refugees…to Olympic Athletes

  1. Great article Marney!
    To answer your question, I am more apt to read spiritual books. I love the ones that don’t give me all the answers but stretch me, leaving me asking questions,
    As Deepak Chopra says, “If you live the questions, life will move you into the answers.”

  2. Thank you for this post. Little Bee is still sitting in my “to read” pile, and now Chris Cleave has another! I’m falling behind. Just added “Gold” to my list….. 🙂

  3. Because of your recommendation, I read Little Bee and loved it.In terms of fiction, or non-fiction memoir I think it takes some courage not to wrap it up in a bow. Often, real life isn’t quite like that and, as in Little Bee, awakens us to a situation we should be aware of…and weren’t. Great post Marney! 🙂

    • You’re so right, Jacquie, it takes a lot of restraint not to wrap up a story nicely. It also takes a great deal of skill to do it and prevent your readers from wanting to throw the book against the wall. A difficult balance of realism, but enough of an ending to satisfy.

  4. I appreciate hearing your take on both “Little Bee” and “Gold”. The former has been on my shelf for awhile, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet – thanks for the nudge. I too like more challenging and thoughtful fare when I read… for mindless distraction I can always turn on the TV! My favourite author for consistently thought-provoking insights is Alice Walker… visceral, real, often gritty, effortlessly profound, she opens me up to new ways of seeing the world every time!

  5. I read Remains of the Day for the very first time a couple weeks ago. Now I’m rereading it. It so quietly powerful. Just enjoyable through and through. I’ll have to keep my eye out for a Chris Cleave book. Wonderful post! 😀

  6. Hi Marney. I just read this book not too long ago and loved it. I loved Cleave’s writing and especially was hooked by his opening as well. From the get go, I found this story pushing the boundaries, asking profound questions that call on people to act. It was very powerful. Thanks for sharing it, especially in this very personal way. Best of luck with your book and congratulations!


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