Finished Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees today, after having put it aside for a while when I struck a bit of a slack patch in the middle. It’s an interesting coming of age story - I suppose that’s what you call it, although a growing-up story might be more appropriate. Lily, the daughter of an abusive father, tells us early in the piece that she accidentally shot and killed her mother during a family argument. Her only friend appears to be a black woman called Rosaleen who works on the peach orchard Lily’s father owns. When Rosaleen is arrested and then hospitalised because she’s beaten up by angry whites, Lily ’rescues’ her from the hospital, and the two set out on a journey that takes them to a house owned by three black sisters - three wise, but rather strange sisters.
The story is set in the days when blacks were signing up to register for the vote, and when integration was happening but greatly rejected by the whites. But this is the background to a story in which bees play a large and vital part and in which learning about yourself, your anger, your failures and mistakes and the need to move forward all contribute to what happens.
The language is often rich and vital - sometimes almost too much so. Lily and Rosaleen, and Lily’s father are solid real characters. The three sisters never strike me as black women, somehow, as Rosaleen does. Maybe this is a fault in my reading of the story, but whereas Kidd presents Rosaleen as a physical black presence, the three sisters seem to live on a different plane, and thinking of them as black is something I found hard to do.
Kidd wrote the non-fiction book When the Heart Waits some years ago, and it was one of the better-selling books in the shop I ran. The Secret Life of Bees is different altogether, apart from being fiction. It has an odd spirituality in it, is very female-focused, and Kidd’s version of feminism again comes to the fore - though here it‘s entirely appropriate to the story. Nevertheless the male characters in the book are no ciphers; sometimes they’re more real than the women.
Here’s a short quotation from chapter fourteen of the book:
People, in general, would rather die than forgive. It’s that hard. If God said in plain language, ‘I’m giving you a choice, forgive or die,’ a lot of people would go ahead and order their coffin.