Shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize in 2015, The Bees is another one of those books that straddles the line between literary and commercial. Before picking it up in my local bookshop last year, I’d heard a lot of praise about its ingenuity and genuine thrill. Which, for a book all about bees, is pretty impressive.
Flora 717 is supposed to be a Sanitation bee. Called ugly for her slightly strange appearance to the other Bees in the hive, she is immediately picked out by a Sage priestess for her ability to produce Flow – the substance that feeds newly hatched Bees. In addition to her non-sanitation abilities, she can speak clearly, unlike the silence or grunts of her flora sisters.
Flora soon mixes with all parts of the hive, from the nursery for the Queen’s new hatchlings, to the rooms where the males are fed and groomed despite their pompous and vulgar attitudes, and beyond the hive as a forager collecting desperately needed nectar and pollen for the coming winter months.
But there are secrets in the hive, as rumours about the Sage priestesses and the Queen begin to surface and Flora finds herself caught in the middle of them. And soon, Flora is keeping her own secret that threatens her life and may jeopardise the whole hive.
You would not think a fictional account of bees would be so addictive.
I learned a huge amount about bees while reading this, surprisingly enough. It manages to give you information about these little insects in such a way as to seem compelling and utterly fascinating. The necessity of scent that bees use in all aspects of their lives is rendered beautifully throughout and gives a huge amount of depth. You can smell and even taste with every word, as all of the context for Flora’s life is built around these things, as well as devotion to the Queen and hive.
Flora is a strong character, and you want her to succeed at every turn. Despite being a bee, she’s a character that carries conviction and I couldn’t help but love her for it.
And it’s not so much that this is a very human story, although there are of course elements of that, such as the nature of motherhood and friendship. It is definitely about bees. Yet that doesn’t detract at all. I cared about the characters and the story, and – perhaps more importantly to the core of what this novel is about – I care about what happens to them, or is going to happen to them.
It is very clear that the message is about the treatment of our environment. Reports of declining bee numbers over the years have left many environmentalists concerned over the state of our planet. Paull captures this throughout in a way that isn’t preaching, but merely commentating on nature’s attempts to survive in what is becoming a declining habitat. Just the image of a starving bee unable to drink nectar from a flower because it is poisoned with pesticides is a little heartbreaking. I may have immediately told my other half I want a bee house, like, now.
Also, I may never have honey again. You’ll have to read the book to find out why I now find the idea of humans having honey devestating…
Not only did I fall in love with this book and the way the story subtly works under your skin, but I fell in love with the subject too. It is a wonderful novel.
Laline Paull will be appearing at the Marlborough Literature Festival later this year, to talk about her new book The Ice. And I think I’ll be picking that one up very soon!