Chris Cleave has just returned from a pre-publication tour of the West Coast for his second book, Little Bee, due out from Simon & Schuster. His first novel, Incendiary, was the harrowing story of a terrorist bombing in London; it marked the debut of a remarkable writing talent overshadowed by the eerie coincidence of its British publication date—July 7, 2005, the same day four suicide bombers killed more than 50 people in central London.
When I meet up with him in Oxford, England, Cleave recalls the notoriety that followed: “For a while, it made me a bit of a pariah in the U.K.” He accepts this, but rebuffs any suggestion that his book, framed as an open letter to Osama bin Laden, was in Michiko Kakutani's damning phrase, “a case of simple tastelessness.” The gentle-spoken Cleave insists, “I don't think a book is there to be tasteful. I think wallpaper is there to be tasteful. I think Kakutani mistook her discomfort for tastelessness.”
Though less provocative than its predecessor, Little Bee is an equally topical story, in this case the collision of worlds caused when a Nigerian asylum seeker, the eponymous Little Bee, seeks refuge with a middle-class Englishwoman living in a prosperous suburb of London. As the novel progresses, we learn the two share a tragic secret, and we witness their joint inability to surmount the catastrophes that have struck them both as a result.
Like Incendiary, Little Bee is noteworthy for Cleave's imaginative metaphors, his vivid dialogue (one character says of London, “ '[T]here's eight million people here pretending the others aren't getting on their nerves. I believe it's called civilization' ”) and the author's ability to find a redemptive grace in the midst of almost inconceivable horror.
Cleave lives in the placid London suburb of Kingston-on-Thames. He's married to a Frenchwoman who is a professional chef, has two young sons and says he enjoys the “normality” of suburban life precisely for its lack of excitement. Yet in his 35 years he has packed in an impressive amount of experience. Born in England, he moved as a baby to West Africa, where his father, an industrial chemist, worked to standardize the formula for the Guinness Brewery's famous stout, so that a pint drawn in Dublin today tastes the same as one pulled in Cameroon—“no mean feat,” says Cleave with a twinkle in his eye.
Returning to England to finish school, Cleave then attended Oxford to study chemistry, but a chance reading of Primo Levi's The Periodic Table made him realize that what he really wanted to do was write. After switching to psychology and graduating with the Oxford equivalent of a summa cum laude degree, Cleave blithely assumed, in an ironic tone, “that the world would soon recognize my genius.” When it didn't, he worked in Australia for a year as a bartender, then joined London's Daily Telegraph, where he worked on what was then an embryonic online edition. Three more years followed as head of content with LastMinute.com, one of the few British survivors of the dot-com boom.
He was writing all the time, but with no success, and says now, “At that stage I was five crappy novels in, and realized they were crappy because I wasn't giving my heart and soul to them. After working on Web sites all day, I had no power left in the brain. I needed to give myself two years just to write and had saved enough money to do that, so we went to live in Paris, which is very inexpensive.” Eighteen months later, the gamble paid off when Incendiary was sold in both the U.K. and the U.S.
Now expecting a third child, Cleave is also at work on his third novel, an ambitious epic that he says spans “60 years of the 20th century through the minds of my grandparents. I'm really interested in the generational shifts on ideas of honor, trust and faithfulness.” He's due for another tour of the States when Little Bee comes out in the winter, and looks forward to it, especially as many of his favorite writers are American. In particular, he reveres John Steinbeck because, just like Cleave himself, “everything he does has a social agenda, yet he writes to change people's hearts.”