Lily is a girl who has a special relationship with bees. In the hot, sticky South Carolina summer, she lays awake into the night to watch them crawl through a crack in her bedroom wall and dance around the room. Where most children would be scared of such an invasion, she finds it magical. One night, she is so struck by the wonder of this sight that she feels she will just burst if she doesn’t share it with someone; the only other someone in the house is her father, T Ray, who is decidedly unimpressed with being awoken. This does not really surprise Lily, for T Ray is a bitter man who is generally unimpressed with Lily herself. Aged fourteen, her mother has been dead for the past ten years, leaving her with just T Ray to live with and a surrogate mother in the help, Rosaleen.
Lonely, bullied at school and at home, she welcomes the chance to spend her birthday walking into town with Rosaleen, who is going to register as a voter for the first time. This being the Deep South in the summer of 1964, it doesn’t take much for Rosaleen to find herself on the wrong side of three local racists and put in jail on trumped-up charges of assault. Seeing the mess that Roslaeen ends up in after the police claim she “fell down some steps” in the jail, Lily decides to take matters into her own hands and fix both of their miserable fates. She runs away from home, breaking Rosaleen out in the process, and the two of them go on the run to the town of Tiburon, where Lily suspects her late mother may have had connections.
Their adventure leads them to the home of the calendar sisters: August, May and June Boatwright, three black women who run a beekeeping business out of a pink house on the edge of town. Fascinated by both the bees and the clues that suggest that Lily’s mother may have once visited the house, Lily and Rosaleen find lodgings and work in the honey business, an entirely different world from the one they have left. They discover many of the wonders of bees and honey, and find a mysterious female cult that the sisters and their friends have built up around a Black Mary statue that also inhabits their home. In is in this house that Lily starts to learn as much about herself and the keeping of bees as she does about her late mother.
As a very emotional, coming-of-age book, this is far from the sort of novel that I usually read. I normally find this sort of material to be cloying and overly sentimental, but I found The Secret Life of Bees to be a surprisingly involving and moving story, with the backdrop of the signing of the Civil Rights Act providing a good layer of tension to the narrative that prevents the story from getting too sickly sweet. Sue Monk Kidd, not a novelist I have ever read before, can also feel justifiably proud of her writing in this novel – not only did Lily come across as a very real character, the sense of place was so good you could almost smell the honey coming off the pages.
Other characters were perhaps less well portrayed – T Ray in particular was something of a one-dimensional brute – and I did sometimes wonder at what was motivating characters to behave in the way that they did. One or two bits of the plot consequently didn’t quite work for me, but on the whole this was a satisfying read and one that I felt was worth the time I invested in it. I have heard that this novel has since been made into a very average film, but then I rarely find that films can better the source material they are based on!
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