Laila Paull, The Bees (2014)
With its insect-eye view of life inside a beehive, The Bees is a brilliant imaginative exploration of a fascinating and complex world. Born to be just one of a mass of anonymous sanitation workers, Flora 717 turns out to have some special qualities. As she goes on an unprecedented journey through the hive and its environs, she takes us from the drudgery of cleansing the morgue to the ritual ecstasies of the Queen’s sacred presence, from the holy peace of the nursery to the furious activity of repelling intruders like wasps and mice.
Paull is a playwright and screenwriter, but I can see why she chose to write this story as a novel (her first). Through narrative she can depict the sensuous life of the bees, their experiencing of scent, taste, touch, and vibration, in a way that would be very difficult in a visual medium. This was a very vivid and striking aspect of the book, one of my favorites. I also enjoyed the semi-human characterization of the various bee groups — the hedonistic drones, the brave and intrepid foragers, the solemn royal priestesses, the terrifying soldiers.
On the other hand, I found certain mentions of tables or door handles or symbols carved in the walls to be jarring, and thought
these could easily have been eliminated to make the book more convincing. Of course, bees wouldn’t talk, either, or have a religious life, and so on, but one has to accept some narrative conventions or the whole thing falls apart. For me, it was the physical objects that held me up, although they may have been meant metaphorically.
I was left wondering to what extent the depiction of bee biology was really accurate. I heard a podcast interview with the author in which she declared that the strangest things (like the fertility police and the expulsion of the drones) were factual, and although I was skeptical about the central premise of Flora’s difference it seems to be technically possible, though extremely rare. I would have appreciated a few notes about this aspect, pointing out what was based in fact and what might have been altered by artistic license.
Although it’s being compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, Animal Farm, and The Hunger Games, the book The Bees recalls to me most strongly is Watership Down. Like Richard Adams’s rabbit saga, it attempts to plunge us into the alien consciousness of nature, and thus to bring us a compelling new vision of our world — but can’t completely leave behind the human lens through which we see it. If you can accept it within those limitations, however, it can be a thrilling and immersive reading experience, and give you a new respect for these amazing and endangered creatures.
Paperback release date: May 12, 2015
Be sure to check out the discussion over at Shiny New Books!