The secret life of bees – Sue Monk Kidd
It seems every summer I make the unconscious decision to read a wildly popular book away from my usual preferred genres. In the past it has led me to gems such as Water for elephants, the Help or the kite runner. I hope this year’s offering will be every bit as good as those books.
Lily has grown up believing she accidentally killed her mother when she was four. She not only has her own memory of holding the gun, but her father's account of the event. Now fourteen, she yearns for her mother, and for forgiveness. Living on a peach farm in South Carolina with her father, she has only one friend: Rosaleen, a black servant whose sharp exterior hides a tender heart. South Carolina in the sixties is a place where segregation is still considered a cause worth fighting for. When racial tension explodes one summer afternoon, and Rosaleen is arrested and beaten, Lily is compelled to act. Fugitives from justice and from Lily's harsh and unyielding father, they follow a trail left by the woman who died ten years before. Finding sanctuary in the home of three beekeeping sisters, Lily starts a journey as much about her understanding of the world, as about the mystery surrounding her mother.
From the opening chapter I was captivated by the secret life of bees. The story is told from the perspective of a young girl called Lily, who has lost her sense of identity in the world. One of her earliest memories is one of great tragedy and her life since has been a struggle to endure an overpowering and uncaring father.
Lily’s voice is fantastic. She speaks with sincerity and an innocence that is intoxicating. My heart immediately went out to her as she recalls her childhood and her views on the world.
In troublesome times, her pure thoughts on complex situations are refreshing and put the adults in her life to shame. Despite her youthful age, her outlook is often eminently more sensible and wiser than her peers.
Lily is driven to find out more about her mother. A woman she barely knew, but one whose personality she has created through wishful thinking more than anything else. When her nanny Rosaleen finds herself a victim of racist abuse and gets in trouble with the police, Lily seizes her opportunity to escape her turgid life and go on her own personal request.
This leads her to a house of three black women who are happy to accept her spurious story as she finds her feet. The characters Sue Monk Kidd portrays are brilliantly realised. In August Boatwright, Monk has created a figure who rivals Harper Lee’s Calpulnia. Her interaction with Lily and stand-offish but firm guidance make you want to have her in your life.
However, it is the others that truly bring this story to life, June, May and of course Rosaleen all have their nuances and foibles that help to enrich this tale, whilst Lily’s father T-Ray, serves as the perfect complex antagonist.
It is hard to believe that this was a debut novel. The prose is so polished and Lily’s “voice” so assured that I would have said this is a book from someone who is at the peak.
The racial tension is well handed and Monk does well to limit it to more of a background element to the plot whilst still acknowledging its impact. This is the correct decision as the strength of the novel is undoubtedly Lily.
The secret life of bees is a heart-warming tale of growing up and understanding the world around you. Lily searches for a life and answers that will always be beyond her but at the same time learns through experience all she needs to ever know.
My rating: 9.2