Book Review: The Bees by Laline Paull

Laline Paull’s novel The Bees is on the six-book shortlist of the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. DWL will be reviewing some of the shortlisted books before the winner is announced on June 3.

We are the Bees. Pollinators. The strongest link in your food chain. Without us one third of the food you know would not exist. Our harvest of honey and pollen, wax and propolis, provides you taste, nutrition, medicine. Our social intelligence exceeds yours. After all, we learnt to organise ourselves efficiently and equitably in societies from the very moment we existed. You got there, eventually and we still can’t say whether your societies are efficient and they certainly aren’t equitable. So it is a wonder that it is only now that one of you has thought of writing a book about us, not as villainous sidekicks in some horror story (we haven’t forgiven you for the Poltergeist) or as the object of your guilt-soaked documentaries but as central characters in a story just about us.

In The Bees, Laline Paull lures you into our world from the third page, with the birth of the protagonist Flora 719 and traps you there till the very end of this strange, fascinating thriller. It is through Flora that we are led deeper and deeper into the Hive. We love that this is not a factual documentary about our lives (told in that patronising documentary voice of yours) but an intricately woven story about danger and destiny and the things we can’t help doing for love.

Born as a Sanitation Worker, the lowest in the Hive social order, Flora is an unlikely heroine but she is resilient, strong and devoted to the Queen. She proves her abilities against real dangers to the Hive and in doing so moves up to the social order. Although the story is well constructed, Laline indulges in some flights of fancy to propel Flora through the plot — strange accidents and unexpected behavior — that allow Flora access to power. Once she becomes a Forager, Flora’s social standing in the Hive remains fragile. She is repeatedly reminded of her humble beginnings and sent back to be with her kin by the fanatic Sages and their henchmen, the Fertility Police, who remain vigilant for any blasphemy against the Hive rule (Accept, Obey, Serve). We worry about Flora and remain suspended in anxiety as she compulsively breaks one of the most important rules of all.

The writing in this book is striking. Laline seems to be one of us when she describes: the look of flower petals when they turn and twist, playfully seducing us as we feed on their nectar; the flavour of that first nectar so unexpectedly bright followed by an after taste, “a deeper musk changing the first sweetness”; the feel of our wings when we fly over open fields and the joy of the first spring forage after the long winter cold with us, “dancing wildly of a blazing forsythia bush” visiting it for hours, “enraptured at the constantly twining threads of scent and the sudden bursts of glittery pollen showering” onto our backs.

The Bees UK book cover. Photo: Laline Paull's official website.

The Bees UK book cover. Photo: Laline Paull’s official website.

Yet there are others parts of the story where it is clear that Laline is projecting your world onto ours. The references to “blissful aromas of Pollen & Patisserie” are odd and careless. The description of the rigid lifetime caste system where sanitation workers are not allowed to touch those of higher castes, the sexist intolerable behaviour of the male drones and the lurid scenes of their subsequent slaughter, the extermination by the Fertility Police of any eggs or young ones that appear deformed, the need of the Sages to maintain the order of the Hive through a system of rules and religious censure, are all problems that have existed, and continue to exist in your society not one as old and dignified as ours.

We wouldn’t really have minded Laline using the book to talk about how the actions of some of you endanger all of you if she had also talked more explicitly about how the actions of some of you endanger us. Ok, so we did star in Langworthy and Henein’s documentary about mass bee deaths, what you like to call the “colony collapse disorder”. Although The Bees is nothing like M. Night Shyamalan’s movie The Happening which pretends that our deaths are a complete mystery (really?), and Flora’s story buzzes around poisoned pollen, how you steal the honey from our Treasury, sick rain, the grey metal cell phone towers around which so many of our dead lie, but we wish the book had talked more openly and explicitly about how you are killing us. I suppose though we would say that…

Overall we like the book, the story and how it has brought us into your consciousness. I just hope things change for us so this book remains a story and doesn’t become a history book of what once was and what could have been.

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