I’ve never been a 14-year-old girl let alone one brought up (or rather beaten up by her dad T Ray) in the heat of South Carolina where Lily struggles to come to terms with the mother she shot dead as a toddler. Or did she? Was she simply being tormented with guilt by her violent and nasty dad T Ray?

Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees has been a best seller since its publication in 2001 winning the 2004 Book Sense Book of the Year, long listed for the Orange Prize and scooping rave reviews from the likes of Anita Shreve and Joanna Trollope along the way.

Seen through the eyes of teenage Lily Melissa Owens the coming of age novel takes us on a hormonally charged journey through an America coming to terms with the idea that black people have as much an equal right to being US citizens as the more privileged whites. With her background and education and being white Lily becomes aware that Negroes (as she refers to them) may be just as intelligent and attractive as the dominant white population. This is helped in part by her ‘help’ Rosaleen who she manages to spring from hospital jail after a trumped up charge of theft. Sue Monk Kidd lays on the injustice of Rosaleen’s treatment by the police and racist residents with a trowel to ensure we understand the insufferably racist social climate of the time. But is she also reinforcing the stereotype of the black mammy like Hattie McDaniel in the 1939 movie Gone with The Wind? Why is Lily the slim and beautiful white heroine and Rosaleen the less than slim black supporting character?

Some of the potential criticism can be batted away because Lily is 14 years old and sees the world within her own limited experience of life. Hence the accents and speech patterns of the characters are more or less in received English and her father T Ray is a baddie with no redeeming features. And there’s the candid way she admits that she didn’t realise black people could be attractive or educated during the course of the story stacks up within her own character.

At one point she overhears June talking to August about her being white. She writes: “This was a great revelation – not that I was white but that it seemed like June might not want me here because of my skin colour. I hadn’t known this was possible – to reject people for being white.”

Her language and descriptions are also limited as they would be at that age although that makes the story less complex and perhaps more accessible. Having said that there are some neat descriptions of nature such as this: “A breeze moved through the room from the open window. I walked to it and stared out at the dark fringe of trees by the edge of the woods, a half moon wedged like a gold coin into a slot, about to drop through the sky with a clink. Voices filtered through the screen. Women voices. They rose in chirps and melted away. The Daughters were leaving.”

Lily’s salvation comes in the form of the Boatwrights sisters – beekeeper and head of the household August, school teacher June and disturbed May – with whom she and Rosaleen seek refuge whilst on the run from the law and T Ray. Her obsession with the Black Madonna honey brand and the sisters’ statue of Black Mary (Our Lady In Chains) adds to the themes of the novel – that of a search for Lily’s lost mother Deborah. A search held back at times by the chains of social and family restrictions from which she tries to break free from – symbolised by the bees, their queens and their occasional swarms when they leave the hive en masse.

It’s not just an insight into South Carolina in 1964 but a grounding in the art of beekeeping and the production of honey overseen by August, the wisest of the sister and friend of Lily’s late mother. So did Lily shoot her mother by accident when she was a toddler as her parents argued? Well the jury is still out but for me it’s not the point – the fact there is doubt as to what really happened adds a layer of guilt and a desire for redemption in Lily’s coming of age journey.

Harry Mottram
• A movie of the book was made in 2008 directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood with Queen Latifah as August and Dakota Fanning as Lily.