Book Review: The Bees

Thursday 28 May 2015 by

The Bees, Laline Paull, Book, Fourth Estate, Bailey's Prize 2015The Bees by Laline Paull

Published by 4th Estate

Accept. Obey. Serve.

Flora 717 is a survivor. Born into the lowest class of the totalitarian hive society she is prepared to sacrifice everything for the Queen, surviving internal massacres, religious purges and terrifying invasions by vicious wasps. With each act of bravery her status grows, revealing both the enemies within and the sinister secrets that rule the hive. But when her instinct to serve is overwhelmed by a fierce and deeply forbidden maternal love, she breaks the most sacred law of all…

~*~

As part of the Baileys Prize shortlist, there was inevitably going to be some hype behind The Bees, but in honesty it hadn’t crossed my radar until recently.

Told from the point of view of a bee, this dystopian novel has a unique concept. And, aside from all the things I learnt about bees, it is wonderfully imagined.

Flora 717 is a bee like no other – she questions the normal order of things and starts a disruptive path that leads the whole hive on a terrifying and thrilling journey. As a protagonist, there are Mary-Sue moments, but these are fended off by the very nature of her – she is, ultimately, a bee who wants to fit in with the hive, not recreate it.

The different kinds of bees in the hive are fantastically realised – sinister, sweet, loving, excitable, their characteristics blend in to the hive mentality and create strength in it. As this is a dystopian novel, spending too much time on the plot will simply ruin it for people haven’t read it, but I have to insist you do give it a go.

I have seen some mixed reactions to The Bees – some people can’t finish it, whilst others fall hopelessly in love with it. I’m from the latter. This book is a highlight of 2015 for me – it’s clever, charming, filled with love and peril, and the writing is deftly done to make it feel authentic and welcoming. At no point did I feel it was too alien – too bee-like – to empathise with. There are some very human moments.

There is an interesting parallel in this tale – political, cultural, and emotional – that could perhaps serve as a warning to our modern existence. After all, the hive is a strange dictatorship, driven by religious zeal and ruthless judgement. In fact, if I’m honest, the religious zeal bit did catch for me – the reimagined Lord’s prayer jolted me out of the story and I wasn’t sure it was needed, and the blind faith I struggled with at times (although it isn’t out of place in the context of the story).

My absolute favourite bit, however, is the concept of the scents. I kept catching myself trying to use my sense of smell more; for Flora, smell is everything, and this is very much an olfactory novel rather than a visual one (think the bee version of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume) which is refreshing after How to be Both, which is unrelentingly visual. The art of such a novel is a delicate one, but Paull enchants with her skill.

The ending, such a pervasive problem for me when reading, is sweetly done. But sadly, it is rather predictable. Perhaps because it was inevitable that it becomes predictable, but there is a small sense of disappointment for me. However, I can safely say I can only think of about five brilliant endings out of all the hundreds and hundreds of books I’ve ever read! So I can’t really hold it against Paull, considering the rest of the novel is such a marvel.

I’d be interested to know at what point people gave up with the story, if they couldn’t get along with it. Because for me, there isn’t a single point at which I wanted to put this novel down – I devoured it. The writing is a delicious as the nectar Flora craves, and the story swells with as much joy as the Queen’s Love rewards the hive. There is charm in Paull’s writing – clearly a bee fan – and it sings with ambitious honesty, with the sting of moral warning: the poisoned chalice is filled with honey.

I already miss Flora and the hive, and there is a feeling of loss when you put down this book. One to read again and again! And I promise you, you will never look at bees the same way again.

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