Monthly Archives: September 2014

THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES by Sue Monk Kidd

the secret life of bees by sue monk kidd

Like a jar of honey, this is sweet and delicious. Also like a jar of honey, you might find it too sweet, depending on your tastes.

Fourteen year old Lily runs away from home with her father’s housekeeper, Rosaleen, to escape his harsh parenting, his peach farm and the memories of a terrible accident that killed her mother.  The two make their way to Tiburon, South Carolina, on the basis that Lily’s mother had once stashed away a picture of a black Madonna, scrawled with the name of the town.  Set in 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement, the two raise more than a few eyebrows given Rosaleen is black and Lily white, but they are warmly welcomed by a trio of beekeeping sisters when they reach Tiburon, allowing Lily to embark on the challenging task of trying to uncover the secrets of her mother’s past. In doing so, Lily must confront the truth about her own role in her mother’s death and decide whether she wants her future to be as marred by guilt as the past has been.

From the feisty, warm hearted Rosaleen, to mean ogre like TJ, Lily’s father, by way of the three exotic sisters who host their own church and whose friends wear colourful, eccentric Sunday best hats, THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES is full of stereotypes, especially of African American women. But if you can overlook that you’ll find it’s also full of love, humanity and insight.  These rescue the well worn themes of coming of age, racial divides, the healing power of other culture’s spirituality and the sweetness of young love to transform a series of cliches into something far better somehow than the sum of its parts.

There’s a brilliant scene where a wooden statute of the Virgin Mary is anointed in honey during a ceremony to celebrate and protect her. It seems to sum up this book;  full of warmth, compassion and good intentions, provided you can ignore the obvious downsides – like getting really sticky. Easy to read and captivating enough to hold my attention in the week Scotland was voting on independence, it soothed, satisfied and gave solace. Just like a jar of really good honey.

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BLUEEYEDBOY by Joanne Harris

blueeyedboy by joanne harris

More in the vein of GENTLEMAN AND PLAYERS than the CHOCOLAT series this is a dark, disturbing and atmospheric tale told through webjournal entries. Our narrator for most of the book is blueeyedboy, a 42 year old janitor still living at home with his mother. He’s one of three brothers whose mother decided to make life easier by dressing each of her sons in just one colour – blue, brown and black respectively. The colours are part of each boy’s personality, and the men they become, giving us these opening lines:

Once there was a widow with three sons and their names were Black, Brown and Blue. Black was the eldest, moody and aggressive. Brown was the middle child, timid and dull. But Blue was his mother’s favourite. And he was a murderer.

Harris plays a great deal with the senses in this novel, which features Dr Gray Peacock , an expert in synaesthesia a rare condition where two – or sometimes more – of the five ‘normal’ senses are apparently fused together. Dr Peaacock investigates the condition in blueeyedboy and also discovers it in another local child, Emily White, who becomes a media sensation as a result. Disappointment, jealousy and betrayal ensue.

Harris plays with our minds too. Blueeyedboy uses his webjournal to escape everyday life, with a mixture of apparently fictional public posts in which he murders all those who have hurt or upset him, and of restricted posts that tell the story of his upbringing, his life now, and the real ways he is wreaking revenge on those he wants to murder. He is joined online by albertine, with whom blueeyedboy has an intense but complicated real life relationship too, and the mysterious jennytricks, whose posts are always blocked. As website administrator blueeyedboy thinks he is in control, but it turns out nothing is further from the truth. Much the same could be said of us as readers.

Harris’s story telling skills are second to none and, true to form, this book hooked me from the outset. It jumps around in time, filling in gaps then cracking them wide open again almost immediately. Harris has described the writing process as like a fiendish Chinese puzzle-box, something that certainly comes across in the finished book. Full of twists and turns that challenge where your sympathies lie, BLUEEYEDBOY keeps you guessing right to the last moment thanks to an unreliable narrator, blurred lines between fact and fiction, and the ease with which anyone can become someone else online.

I first read this book a few years ago, rattling through and missing some of the finer details. This time I relished every last word, the truthful and the lies, enjoying it all the more as a result. You will too, especially if you can remember that everything you know is wrong.

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