The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is nearly 20 years old but I had not come across it until the paperback was gifted to me for Christmas a couple of weeks ago.
The story concerns Lily, a young teenager who has spent most of her life living with her abusive father and believing that she killed her mother. The setting is South Carolina in the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Act was signed and racial tensions were building dangerously. Lily (white) and Rosaleen (a black servant) end up on the run together from their home at the peach farm, following a trail Lily hopes will lead to information about her beloved and long lost mother. The unlikely pair is taken in by a kindly household of three beekeeping sisters, and Lily is put to work assisting with the never-ending beekeeping tasks.
The themes explored include friendship, belonging, grief, prejudice, and gender issues. There is a small part of the novel that I particularly liked. Lily has spent a long time not knowing the reality of her family history, and after much agonising and searching, a veil is lifted and she learns the truth. This leads to a weighing up of knowing vs. not knowing, and the wisdom that comes when you realise that sometimes it can be better to live in a hopeful state of ignorance than marinating sadly in the truth.
There are many delightful characters, including the sisters with their interesting naming convention and the outrageously hatted ladies who attend their homemade church. The trends and fashions of the sixties are explored in vivid and fun detail. But one of my favourite things about this novel is that I learnt a great new word – ‘shitbucket’ – used by Lily as both an expression and a noun (and I can’t wait to employ it myself next time I kick my big toe on the leg of the bed.)
I found this to be a great holiday read, with the tension building at a good pace and all the ends tied up nicely.