A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I’ll be honest, I had no idea how this book was going to work. It’s a novel about a bee. Set in a beehive. All the characters are bees (plus some wasps and spiders). Really? It seemed ambitious. Wouldn’t it end up just… trying too hard? Wouldn’t the quirky premise end up outweighing anything else?
It could have. It so easily could have. But it didn’t. The Bees is a triumph.
Flora 717 is born a ‘sanitation worker’, pretty much the lowest class of bees in the hive. They are big and crude and are deemed fit only to clean up the other bees’ mess and dispose of the corpses of the hive’s dead. But there is something unusual about Flora 717. She can speak in the same way that the higher classes of bee can, so she is chosen to attempt some jobs that are technically way above her social standing. She initially spends time in the nursery, caring for the Queen’s many babies before she witnesses the fertility police destroy a young bee because they have been born by someone who isn’t the Queen. Flora 717 is highly disturbed and returns to sanitation duty. However, her precociousness means that she ends up doing higher level jobs again, including becoming a Forager, sent out to collect nectar and pollen during a summer where the rains have been too plentiful and to crops where pesticides can have far-reaching, fatal consequences.
As the story develops, Flora 717 and her unusually sharp skills come into conflict with the upper echelons of the hive, turning the novel into a tightly written, beautiful sort of a thriller. We all know that nature is red in tooth and claw, and the insect world is no different. As well as being at odds with many of her own kind, Flora 717 also comes into battle with spiders and wasps, both enemies of the bees.
Comparisons have been made between The Bees and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which is one of my top three favourite books of all time. I can see what they mean. Ignoring the fact that one book is about humans and the other is about bees, both deal with female hierarchies where our main characters are low down the pecking order, but who seek a way out of the stifling constraints of “Accept and Obey”. Others have compared The Bees to Watership Down with its use of animals as human-style characters, and even with The Hunger Games, as bee is pitted against bee in a battle for survival at all costs.
Not knowing anything about bees, I can’t comment on how many liberties Paull has taken with the workings of bee society, but to be honest, I’m not sure it matters. Contrary to my initial concerns about the novel, I was quickly enthralled and devoured it within a day and a half over Christmas. Along with Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven – another slightly science fiction-but-not-quite novel that I initially wasn’t sure I’d like – this was one of the best books I read in 2015. It is ambitious, but Laline Paull demonstrates she has the skill to pull it off with aplomb. And it’s her debut novel too! I can’t wait to see what else she comes up with.
Laline Paull: The Bees (London: Fourth Estate, 2014). ISBN 9780007557745, RRP £8.99