If both Margaret Atwood and Emma Donoghue, awesome writers in their own right, give your book advance praise, I am going to pick it up and read it. And now I can tell you that Laline Paull’s debut is one weird and awe-inspiring literary event. Written from the point of view of a bee (yes, a humble little worker bee in a hive), the novel takes you into a secret matriarchal world of a natural system under siege. It is a story of sisterhood and protest, finding your place in the world, understanding power and how to attain it, all at the hands of bees. Paull is a brave and truly creative writer, and she makes the world of THE BEES one that we strive to understand fully.
The timeless world of the beehive is the world of Flora 717, a sanitation worker bee who is born into this lowly state and embraces it, given her bulk and her ugliness. In her world, looking like the hag equivalent of a bee would render one a permanent disappearance, referred to as “the Kindness.” However, Flora makes friends with a ruling class priestess, a relationship that saves her. The priestess thinks that Flora has special abilities, so she is put to work in the nursery where she can oversee and care for thousands of the Queen Bee’s offspring.
"...one weird and awe-inspiring literary event... THE BEES is a marvel, a story worth telling with ramifications you’ll be considering over and over again. Paull’s vision is a scary but exciting one for readers who love their fiction dangerous and just this side of too close for comfort."
At the same time, the hive is in crisis mode. The bees can’t find enough nectar and are slowly starving themselves. This hunger threatens their very existence, and when Flora shows her bravery by helping the hive fight off a wasp attack, she ends up in the company of the Queen. The friendship that strikes up between the humble servant and the almighty ruler allows Flora to see a perspective on the hive she has never had the privilege or ability to see before --- and gets her labeled as the Queen’s favorite. When Flora attracts the attention of one drone named Lord Linden, she makes a fateful decision that forever changes her position in the hive and its very future.
“Accept, Obey and Serve” are the rules of the hive, and Flora, with her new associations and alignments, takes on greater challenges and starts to fall prey to a sense that these rules no longer apply to her. But THE BEES doesn’t let her spend too much time enjoying her newfound freedoms. Instead, she must make choices that will save her own life or the life of the society her newfangled ideas and bold moves have brought to the brink of non-existence.
I do not mean to demean the character of Flora in any way, but how Paull manages to make this bee come alive to the reader is a feat of remarkable literary agility and imagination. Like a tiny Norma Rae with wings, she sees the hierarchy in all its faultiness and vows to do something. But those choices benefit her more than they do the good of the whole hive. Survival of the Fittest? Maybe. Survival of the Smartest? Absolutely.
Simliar to books like WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams, small creatures are put in place of humans in stories that examine social structures and their ability to withstand the pressures and pains of growing up, moving forward into the future with a new mindset, letting old ways that no longer seem applicable to the world just pass away. The novel gives us an active and engaging central figure through whom we can discover this flight of freedom while being shocked and compelled to read more when we realize what Paull is really getting at. Science and myth come together in an uneasy but thrilling coupling, and we are the better for it.
THE BEES is a marvel, a story worth telling with ramifications you’ll be considering over and over again. Paull’s vision is a scary but exciting one for readers who love their fiction dangerous and just this side of too close for comfort.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on May 9, 2014
- Publication Date: May 6, 2014
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Ecco
- ISBN-10: 0062331159
- ISBN-13: 9780062331151