Who’d have thought a novel written from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old American chapel-going girl would find favour with an agnostic British male pensioner? This one did, and how!
Lily is given an authentic voice by the writer so that there’s no danger of author intrusion in this tale of prejudice, faith, injustice and coming of age. It’s always both fascinated and amazed me that the deep south of the USA, with its large population of holier than thou churchgoers was also the hotbed of slavery and racial prejudice. It’s as if the true message of the New Testament never made it through the ignorance and the concept of hypocrisy never arose. But it can’t be as simple as that, since many well-educated folk were every bit as prejudiced on the grounds of skin colour alone.
This novel is set against the background of the early results of the move towards the removal of racial discrimination: a move that seems to have a long way yet to go. Some of the events are alien to the culture of rural Britain, where religion is treated with the suspicion, if not the contempt, it deserves. The unthinking cruelty, ignorance, and pointless prejudice of the times and the region are wonderfully portrayed along with the corruption of their policing system.
But it is Lily’s innocent pursuit of justice that most strongly drives this story. She is an intelligent and troubled girl in search of love, and desperate for answers to the mysteries of her life. Her courage and determination, mingled with the wonderful imagination and self-preserving lies she employs to survive in a strange and alien environment, are beautifully conveyed. Character is the most important element of any novel and here we come across a cast of real, credible and interesting people. Mood, atmosphere, emotion and state of mind all rise effortlessly from the page.
There are passages where little happens, but the descriptions and attention to detail carry the reader through these quiet times, preparing the ground for the upheavals and tensions that make this book a real page-turner. The portrayal of the local distortions of the Catholic faith, exemplifying how such belief systems allow myth and legend to take on the mantle of truth and fact, is cleverly interwoven into the narrative. And the references to the lives of the honey bees, that form a central theme and allegory to the tale, are well researched and fascinating in themselves.
I was able to picture the countryside with its wild aspects mingled with the towns and farms, see the pink house and the orchards with their hives, appreciate the clothing and styles of the characters, and enjoy the flavours and aromas of the food they served and ate.
There is sadness, brutality, joy, corruption, innocence, exploitation, ignorance, danger, exploration, love, and the first stirrings of desire in this beautifully written novel. I can’t now recall how I came across it; I suspect it was on of one of those lists of books recommended by avid readers. I’m glad I did, however, as I thoroughly enjoyed it.