The Bees by Laline Paull
Writing a novel with animals as your characters is a daring thing. You have to tread a fine line between anthropomorphism and the nature of the beast. If the creatures are to communicate, the author will have to put words in their mouths; if you’re not going to dress them up and humanise them like Toad, Ratty and friends in The Wind in the Willows, then much attention needs to be paid to their society as well as the practical details of their habitat. There are myriads of novels about cats and dogs, that famous one about rabbits and I loved the moles of Duncton Wood back in the 1980s – but bees?
Much of literature seen through animal’s eyes is about the triumph of the underdog, and in that respect The Bees is no different. Paull’s heroine, the sanitation worker bee Flora 717 has to start her way at the bottom of the hive, both literally and metaphorically. What does distinguish The Bees from other novels is the complex society of the hive which, in Paull’s hands, becomes a totalitarian state with a scheming Praesidium increasingly managing an ageing leader in their Queen. Yes it’s a dystopian political thriller.
I liked the scene-setting of the Prologue a lot – a lone bee-hive in an old orchard that is likely to be sold off to developers. Then with chapter one, we are straight into the bustle of the hive and Flora’s emergence from her waxy cell. I’ll admit it took me a good few chapters to get into the world of the bees, but at around 75 pages in when Flora is introduced to the stories in the bees’ equivalent of the bible – the sensory mosaics in the Library – it had clicked with me and I could enjoy the intrigue of the tale and cross my fingers that Flora would survive.
Although I have never explored the natural history of bees myself, (I hear that Dave Goulson’s book A Sting in the Tale about bumblebees is wonderful), it is obvious that Laline Paull has researched her subjects thoroughly. From the dances of the workers to show where pollen and nectar is to be found to how the bees excrete wax to all the different roles within the hive it all appears totally authentic.
There are also moments of humour – chiefly relating to the drones. They are the celebrities of the hive, resembling chivalric knights who will have to joust for the honour of mating a Queen. They are waited on hand upon foot (leg on leg?) by ardent groupies, given the best food so that the honour of the hive will be preserved when they are called upon to show their mettle. Ironically, it is not their job to protect the hive from the incursion of vermin or to defend it against the ‘Myriad’ as the wasps are known. Flora develops a close friendship with one of the drones, Sir Linden, and while this seems unlikely to happen in real bee life, does add a spark of romance.
Once gripped, this novel didn’t let go and apart from the conspiracy and hive-politics it was the otherness in Paull’s world-building that made it so compulsive to read. So much so that I was slightly relieved when it ended (but wholly in a good way). (8/10)
The Bees was the first book to be chosen for the Shiny Book Club and our discussion opens today (May 14th). If you’d like to join in, get yourself over there and leave a comment or link to your own review if you have one. I’ll be over there shortly.
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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (Affiliate link):
The Beesby Laline Paull, (2014). 4th Estate paperback, 352 pages.
A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson, (2013), Vintage paperback 288 pages.
If you correctly surmised that my post title is a quote from Jesus Christ Superstar, here is Ted Neely and co from the 1973 movie of the musical. Enjoy!