Lily has grown up believing she accidentally killed her mother when she was just four years old. Now at fourteen, she yearns for forgiveness and a mother’s love. Living on a peach farm in South Carolina with her harsh and unyielding father, she has only one friend: Rosaleen, a black servant.
When racial tension explodes one summer afternoon, and Rosaleen is arrested and beaten, Lily is compelled to act. Fugitives from justice, the pair 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.
When The Secret Life of Bees was first published in 2002, the book grabbed my attention but I was still a penurious student, so I didn’t buy the book and I rather lost sight of it. So when I received a package with both The Secret Life of Bees and Sue Monk Kidd’s newest novel The Invention of Wings I was really stoked to get the chance to finally read it. This week I finally sat down with The Secret Life of Bees and it was an interesting read.
It’s going to be a difficult book to review. First of all, since it has a lot of racial themes which I might not understand to their fullest extent as this isn’t my history. I’m not American and all I know about slavery, segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, The Civil Rights Act and the way racial inequality persists to this day is what I learned in history class and reading (online) and as such my knowledge and perspective will always be incomplete and at a remove. This caveat isn’t meant as an excuse in case I get it wrong, but as an explanation why I might get it wrong despite my best intentions. Second of all, while I recognise there is much that is problematic about the narrative, not least the fact that one of the main elements of the book is the use of the ‘Magical Negro’ trope, I really did connect to Lily, due to her abandoned-by-her-mother issues, which resonated with my own past. Mother issues always hit close to home for me and due to that fact Lily’s story spoke to me loudly. And I’m having a hard time figuring out how to unite these two viewpoints into a coherent whole. How can I enjoy something that is so problematic in many ways?
Because, let’s be honest, the Magical Negro trope, a story trope named as such by Spike Lee, is problematic. It puts the characters of colour in the position of having no purpose other than aiding or saving the protagonist of the story, who is almost always white. It takes away their agency and makes them subservient to the protagonist’s needs. And August and her sisters seem to exist in a bee-filled bubble, waiting to shelter Lily and Rosaleen. There is more to the sisters than just that, but we glimpse it through the cracks, rather than it being a core story arc in the narrative. The bond the sisters share amongst themselves, their care for May and the way they’ve fit themselves around her, unconsciously avoiding her triggers and when she has one of her episodes they move in to take care of her without comment and with practised ease. Their veneration of Our Lady in Chains, whose spirit sometimes seems to speak directly to Lily, and August’s ability to almost commune with the bees seems to verge on the edges of magical realism and only strengthens the invocation of the trope mentioned above.
The Secret Life of Bees is very much a coming-of-age story for Lily. I liked Lily, though at times I wanted to smack her for the way she treated Rosaleen. As mentioned above, I connected strongly to her abandonment issues and her desire to just be loved unconditionally. She can’t see she already has that love from Rosaleen, which was sad in a way, but she finds the unquestioning acceptance and love from August and May. Lily knows she isn’t perfect and her stay with the sisters does open her eyes to her own prejudices and she tries to move past them. I appreciated Monk Kidd addressing that even people who think they aren’t prejudiced, carry unconscious prejudices; it’s a fact of human nature, but one we should be aware of and try to address. Zach is often the one who voices the way racism and prejudice affect African Americans. The other character that often speaks out about the realities of the 1960’s South is Rosaleen. It’s these two characters that also suffer the consequences in the form of imprisonment and violence. The way Zach and Rosaleen are treated by whites is despicable and it’s so hard for me to imagine how people could not see how that was wrong. Then again, looking at how some people regard Muslims here in the Netherlands, I perhaps shouldn’t be surprised.
Monk Kidd’s writing is at times poetic and beautiful; especially the scenes with the bees are almost magical. Her writing style makes for a smooth reading experience, which easily keeps you turning pages. Lily’s voice is distinct, a bit acerbic and very much that of an obstinate teenage girl, which is mirrored by the far softer and more mellow voices of the sisters, especially August’s.
While I really enjoyed The Secret Life of Bees, on closer consideration it’s very much a flawed novel, but still one worth reading if one takes its flaws into account. It’s a novel in the tradition of Fried Green Tomatoes, The Help, and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and if you’ve enjoyed any of those, you’ll probably enjoy this one as well. Despite its very clear issues, I did enjoy reading the book – it even had me in tears at one point – and whatever else might be said about The Secret Life of Bees, it was thought-provoking, as it caused me to really think about what I’d read and analyse my reactions to the text. And in the end, that is one of the things a book is supposed to do, isn’t it?
This book was provided for review by the publisher.