The Secret Life of Bees

Having just finished the novel, The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd in advance of our book group meeting tonight, it just leaves me enough time to write a quick review of it. I have actually read this book before, about five years ago after coming back from a long summer of work experience and holiday in South Carolina, where the book is based and where the novel is set.

It is also, following Generation A by Douglas Coupland, the second book running that our group has read where some of the major developments rely on bees.

Set in the deep south the 1964 , the year the civil rights act was passed, it follows a young teenage girl called Lily Owens who lost her mum when she was four. Her father was a bitter and angry man who ran a peach farm. Since her mother died she was being brought up by Rosaleen, one of her father’s black workers who he plucked out of the fields to work as a nanny. Lily misses her mother and misses real love and affection from anyone except Rosaleen and she treasures the few trinkets she has as a memory of her mother – including an icon of the black Madonna which bears a handwritten inscription, Tiburon, SC.

One day when Lily was about 14, she was accompanying Rosaleen into the nearby town to register to vote. Many of the white men didn’t want blacks registering and Rosaleen gets herself into a scrape which results in her being charged, beaten up and jailed. That night, afraid of the fury from her father, Lily breaks Rosaleen out of the hospital where she is being held and they run away  – towards Tiburon.

There, they stumble into the place which was the origin of her mother’s Black Madonna icon, a pink house of middle-aged black sisters, August, June and May, who keep bees and make Black Madonna honey.  Lily lies about who she is but it later transpires that they knew from the outset – as her mother had been there ten years earlier. She is welcomed and is slowly healed of her hurts and pain, and gradually learns the truth about her mother and the accident that killed her.

It is beautifully written, with deep characters and rich descriptions of the pink house, the process of keeping the bees, and the rather odd rituals of the sisterhood of women. There are also two scenes of racial tension which transport you into the mood of the time. The novel speaks of out need to be loved and accepted right from early on in our lives. When this isn’t there it pervades and colours everything else and one cannot really move on until it is dealt with. In the house, Lily is loved and accepted. There is no pressure for her to tell the truth about who she is but the sisters allow that to come out in her own good time, only after she knows she is safe. Lily had to learn how to trust, receive love without feeling undeserving, and ultimately, to forgive herself for her unwitting part in her mother’s death.

There are many phrases and quotes of the book which I liked. For example, when Lily first enters Tiburon and finds herself staring face-to-face with the same picture of the Black Madonna which is adorning a honey jar in the general store, Lily muses:

I realized it for the first time in my life: there is nothing but mystery in the world, how it hides behind the fabric of our poor, browbeat days, shining brightly, and we don’t even know it.

Some of this mystery comes alive in the author’s description of keeping the bees.

She was also looking for herself. As August was telling the story of a statue of the Black Mary whilst they were both preparing the honey jars, Lily reflects:

I was so caught up with what August was saying I had stopped wetting labels. I was wishing I had a story like that one to live inside me with so much loudness you could pick it up on a stethoscope, and not the story I did have about ending my mother’s life and sort of ending my own at the same time.

Everyone needs a story greater than themselves: this is, I believe, a universal truth of human nature. However, so often, the stories we do construct for ourselves are uninspiring or unhelpful and merely obscure the person we were created to be. Lily learned that she had to own parts of her true story and come to terms with it, as the same time as realising that this story didn’t define her. There was another story of who she was and what she could become.

Ultimately, the novel is about healing, redemption, self-awareness, forgiveness and love. Not romantic love, but the everyday love and stability of a close-knit community that does wonders for an individual’s self-worth and self-perception – the simple act of living life alongside each other. Lily needed to love herself and know that she was loved.

Score 4.5/5. I wonder what the group will think this evening!

There is also a rather fine movie of the book starring Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifa, Alicia Keys, and Sophie Okenedo

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