The title of Lisa O’Donnell’s January debut, The Death of Bees, brought to mind the obvious almost-opposite title, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. And that reminded me of Little Bee by Chris Cleave, which is one of my all-time favorite books. Here’s a short tour of The Bee List, each featuring distinct first-person female narrators.
1. The Death of Bees offers three voices, each with its own clear perspective on the world. Interestingly, I found myself paying the most attention at first to Nelly, whose chapters are rarely longer than a few paragraphs. While her older sister Marnie and their neighbor Lennie tell most of the story, Nelly has so little to say that you feel it has to be important. Yet it was the first few lines, which are in Marnie's voice, that convinced me to give this one a try:
Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.
Marnie and Nelly are determined not to go into foster care and set out to cover up their parents' deaths until Marnie turns 16 and is a legal adult. Will they succeed? This story is set in the low-rent district of Glasgow amidst grinding poverty, but perhaps surprisingly, it's a story that's more about hope than despair.
2. The Secret Life of Bees featured Lily Owens, a white girl escaping from her father and searching for her mother in 1960s South Carolina. She and Rosaleen, the black woman who is the closest thing she’s known to a mother, take off on foot and end up seeking shelter with three black beekeeping sisters. This bestselling coming-of-age tale about mothers and daughters, told in Lily’s irreverent voice, will charm you. It’s a best-selling classic Southern novel.
3. Little Bee’s title character is a teenage Nigerian girl who, after a chance encounter on an African beach with an upscale English couple on holiday, barely escapes with her life. She eventually winds up in an English immigration removal center, which is where asylum seekers are sent. When she’s finally released, she sets out on foot across the country to find Sarah and Andrew. (No, this isn't the fictional UK equivalent of Wild.) But, as she and Sarah learn, that brief encounter on the beach has lasting consequences. One of my favorite characters was Sarah’s young son, Charlie, who is convinced that he’s Batman and battles the “baddies.” The searing voice of Little Bee will stay with you long after you finish this tour de force that shows us what globalization really means.