Like Margret Atwood? Enjoy The Hunger Games and Animal Farm? Get excited about bees, putting honey in your tea, and rebelling against The Man?
It’s a great issue — Tony Doerr, Jane Hirschfield, David Gessner, BK Loren, a sweet photography portfolio on enchanted Russia, and an awesome special section on prison writing and art workshops, and, as always, some good book reviews…
Ecco, 2014. $25.99, 352 pages.
It’ s hard to be an individual when you’re born into a society whose motto is “Accept, Obey, and Serve,” but Flora 717 is special from the start. Born to the lowly sanitation caste, she’s “obscenely ugly,” “excessively large,” and yes, a honeybee. So opens playwright Laline Paull’s dystopian debut novel, The Bees.
Although her hive unquestioningly values only hard work, self-sacrifice, total obedience, and cult-like Queen-worshiping, bold Flora is caught between this ingrained dogma and her own curiosity. Able to speak while her fellow caste sisters cannot, she is tolerated as somewhat of an experiment (a rare thing in this totalitarian state) and is soon allowed to survey hidden parts of the labyrinth hive as she moves in an unprecedented progression up the ranks, from janitor to nursery aid to morgue tender, and finally to forager. As one of the hive’s nectar gatherers, with their “blazing faces and radiant ragged wings, who smelled of no kin but the wild high air,” Flora gets caught in storms and love-drunk on nectar. She battles and avoids wasp, spider, and bird enemies collectively known as “The Myriad,” and evades the hive’s Gestapo-like fertility police, continuously proving her strength and wit, even as she hides an unthinkable secret.
For like any good, self-congratulating cult, the hive is wrapped up in the political
intrigue of its own staunchly enforced caste system and prophetic dogma (“Our mother, who art in labour, Hallowed be Thy womb . . .” ). Pheromones are pumped out like opiate incense to mollify the masses, and any anomalies are swiftly eliminated. This is no place for funny business. So when Flora starts getting a strange feeling in her belly one day, she’s justifiably shocked and
horrified to find herself laying her own egg in a place where “Only the Queen Shall Breed,” and an offense to the contrary is not just mutinous, but a blasphemous death sentence. And yet, Flora is overcome with this awakening new love she feels for her offspring, even as the feeling mingles with her own guilt and betrayal.
Paull’s sensuous writing and contagious fascination for her subjects provide a sturdy anchor even when certain plotlines wear thin and peter out. What might have felt like a gimmicky writers workshop exercise never does, and it’s a compelling way to learn, for instance, how honeybees secrete wax from their abdomens, feed royal jelly to their larvae, and swarm enemy invaders, cooking
them to death with their collective body heat.
Apis enthusiasts will recognize the foragers’ famous waggle dance,
described here as a raucous Dance Hall affair where sisters congregate to learn of good foraging spots in vivid detail. Of particular interest are the drone
male bees or “Your Malenesses,” who are depicted as ridiculous, if not humorous, gluttonous sex fiends, exhibiting none of their sisters’ restraint, yet setting all of them a titter — that is until they no longer serve their purpose come fall, and are turned on and torn to pieces in a grizzly scene straight out of The Bacchae.
Although we know the hive is beginning to fail, big environmental issues like
pesticide damage, ecosystem destruction, and colony collapse disorder are only hinted at. Still, The Bees shines a compelling and imaginative light onto a complex animal society that often goes unnoticed. Readers will never again blindly spoon honey into their tea without thinking of all that went into filling the jar.
— Kathleen Yale