When Lily’s fierce-hearted black “stand-in mother,” Rosaleen, insults three of the town’s most vicious racists, Lily decides they should both escape to Tiburon, South Carolina—a town that holds the secret to her mother’s past. There they are taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters who introduce Lily to a mesmerizing world of bees, honey, and the Black Madonna who presides over their household. This is a remarkable story about divine female power and the transforming power of love—a story that women will continue to share and pass on to their daughters for years to come.
For the Writer: This book was exquisitely written. From what I’ve gathered, Sue Monk Kidd put off writing this book for a few years because she did not think her writing ability would do the story justice. If the interim period which followed was when she developed as a writer, we are seeing the fruit of that growth in The Secret Life of Bees.
SMK sets the tone for her book in metaphor: For example, “During the day I heard them tunnelling through the walls of my bedroom, sounding like a radio tuned to static in the next room…” The simile is not the author’s per se, but the character’s, drawn from the period in which the story is set; and from Lily’s world, which hitherto has been on a peach farm in South Carolina. Another example, “I don’t know what they said, only the fury of their words, how the air turned raw and full of welts.” Wow! And another, “I think now it was sorrow for the sound of his fork scraping the plate, the way it swelled in the distance between us, how I was not even in the room.” These pictures of Lily’s struggling emotions, emerging perceptions and observations are exquisitely drawn for the reader. SMK paints for us Lily’s thoughts emerging from her torn heart like the bees that seep through the walls of her bedroom at night.
SMK establishes from her first words a South Carolina drawl, which swells in an out of the narrative and dialogue like waves on a beach, sometimes noticeably big and strong, breaking and crashing on the sand and sometimes in gentle curls nuzzling your toes, but always present. She does this in the sentence breaks, the vocabulary and the placement of parts of speech which controls the flow of the sentence. “I wanted to tell T. Ray that any girl would love a silver charm bracelet, that in fact last year I’d been the only girl at Sylvan Junior High without one, that the whole point of lunchtime was to stand in front of the cafeteria line jangling your wrist, giving people a guided tour of your charm collection.”
Dialogue is carefully executed adding to the natural lilting drawl and the linguistic character of the white and black divide in South Carolina.
Rosaleen poked her head in the door. “You all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“I’m leaving now. You tell tour daddy I’m going into town tomorrow instead of coming here.”
“You’re going into town? Take me,” I said.
“Why do you wanna go?”
“You’re gonna have to walk the whole way.”
“I don’t care.”
“Ain’t nothing much gonna be open but firecracker stands and the grocery store.”
“I don’t care. I just wanna get out of the house some on my birthday.”
The key players border treacherously close to stock characters or caricature, but never step over the line. When we meet the three ‘bee’ sisters the characters are drawn for the reader by Lily’s observations, at times becoming a little self conscious, as if saying, “Ok. It’s time to meet the three sisters of the pink house. Let me introduce you.” But SMK avoids the pitfall by having the reader wander the house as one of the guests, getting to know the characters as Lily does, authentically and deeply.
Sometimes the scenes and actions of the characters seem overly cinematic. Let me explain. SMK, as I have said, draws an exquisite picture of fine art, but at times, paints scenes that seem to come with a tagline, moments evoking scenes we have witnessed before in some movie or other, relying on our cinematic experience. It’s kind of like a hybrid-art cliche, staging the characters in a scene in such a way where the reader fills-in-the-blanks with a previously viewed movie scene. Here is an example of Lily describing Zach, a young man close in age to Lily who works with August as an apiarist.
“He (Zack) stood there watching me. I couldn’t read the expression on his face. I walked up to him, wishing I knew the right thing to say. A breeze tossed a piece of my hair across my face, and he reached out and brushed it away.” Perhaps it is my own cinematic memory, but it may also reside in the narrative consciousness.
There is one more quality of the writing which detracted, in my mind, from the mysticism of the story created by the character’s relationship to the Black Madonna. Towards the end of the book (no spoiler here) one of the characters in a short scene feels the need to spell out the meaning of the black madonna in didactic terms. It withered the mystery for me, almost descending into a Walt Disneyish just-look-into-your-heart platitude and may I be so bold as to say that the character (or the author) possibly got it wrong. But, for fear of spoilers, any further discussion will have to be done in book clubs with its members who have read the book.
All things considered this is one of the richest books I’ve read this year, holding many a lesson for the treasure seeking writer.