When you’re bored of novels about humans, the thing that really fits the bill is a good novel about bees.
(Thought no one, ever.)
Laline Paull’s novel takes place inside a hive of bees. It is about bees and the life of the hive. And it really is – this is no Brian-Jacques Redwall style hive where they’re all pottering around wearing robes and and ringing bells (if you haven’t read the Redwall series, do – so – now.) This is BEES, people. Bees, with thoraxes, antennae, claws, jaws, propolis (no, me neither), wax, pollen. Bees which pick up other dead bees in their jaws, which sense the ‘hive mind’, which spread their feet to pick up vibrations, to whom scent means much more than sight. BEES. Yet this fidelity is damaged by human details which jar – stair cases, a lounge-bed, bee-fur plaited into patterns. The narrative can’t seem to decide whether it’s bringing human drama into a hive setting, or trying to dramatise a hive story as faithfully as possible in fiction. This indecision prevents the conceit from becoming invisible – as the best all do – and thus letting you sink into the story.
Paull has an immensely imaginative and detailed vision of the inside of the hive – there’s a Chapel of Wax, dormitories, morgue, bakery, dance hall, nurseries… The problem is that too much of the first half of the book is given over to showing us each area in turn. The protagonist, Flora, gets access to all of these places even while it is repeatedly made clear that one bee would never normally see such a lot of the hive, particularly one from a lowly sanitation caste. It feels like we are being given a hive-guided-tour rather than letting Flora’s story unfold naturally. So far, so unpromising, right? Human-Insectoid Bees and a prolonged through-the-keyhole of their home.
But! Wait! No! Suddenly – it got me! Paull exhausted her tourguide tendencies and bam – the book becomes a Marxist-Feminist-Adventure-Thriller! The hive operates a strict caste system, which produces political jostling, preening, religious devotion, and undereducated underclass.. and as the book goes on, the frictions of this system, together with the instabilities of dictatorship rule (i.e. the Queen) when the Dictator is getting on a bit, ignite into class war and a hell of a lot more. There is Battle! Motherhood! Love! Adventure! At some point you just suspend judgement on the whole thing and just throw yourself into the story. You’re rocketing through the hive, sensing the mood of the bees, smelling fear and secrets in the wax, throwing yourself off the landing pad to outwit wasps, living for the good of the whole…
You don’t have to look at the cover to identify a woman’s writing in this one, both for her description of birth/motherhood and for a distinct vein of male hatred. In the predominatly female hive world there is a fascinating love-hate relationship with the small band of male Drone bees which erupts into one of the most shocking and brutal episodes of the book – a scene I’ll remember for some time – which leaves you reeling. Men beware. Ouch.
So, it’s weird. It’s wacky. My understanding of bees is now even worse than it was before. Which parts were real? Which weren’t? And what IS propolis? God only knows (something to do with tree resin). The whole book isn’t quite sure what it is, so stop asking it. Stop thinking. Take it for the weird old novelty adventure story it is. Bonkers, but hey – why not?