We’re into the third month of the year and I’m still incredibly far behind my Penguinspiration target of 30. Although, I have just got through 2 more and am well on the way with a third so I might actually get there by 2017 or something. Recently, despite all my best efforts, I caved and bought a handful of the Penguin Little Black Classics because they cost 80 fucking pence each. They’re all pretty tiny so I’m hoping I can cheat a little and count them as 1 each. Anyway, as I mentioned, I’ve just finished a couple of books and, with the announcement regarding the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist recently I was overjoyed to discover that one of the books was on it. I’m never this ahead of the times. I feel quite proud. So I thought I’d talk about it.
Nowadays, I do most of my reading on my lunch-break from work, which clearly explains why I’m doing such a tiny fucking amount. As I’m sure my fellow readers will know from first-hand experience, this means I’m constantly being interrupted by people asking me what I’m reading. Whilst this is one of the most irritating things known to mankind, I’m never one to miss the chance to talk about books. When trying to describe Laline Paull’s The Bees I was met with much mocking and it was nothing to do with Nicolas Cage for once. It was because every time I tried to describe it I’d make it sound like a fucking children’s book.
As the title suggests, this is a book about bees: one specific bee really, Flora 717. She is supposedly meaningless sanitation worker; the lowest of the low. However, Flora 717 stands out in more ways than one. She’s bigger than her sisters and is the only worker of her class to be able to talk. One of the mysterious Sage priestesses spots Flora’s potential and sees that she is reassigned to help feed the newborns. It is the first step on a never-seen-before rise through the ranks that leads the poor bee to discover things both great and world-shattering.
Despite the titular bees having an unusual predisposition to communicate in English, Paull’s novel starts off with a very strong and scientific feel about it. I enjoyed the initial pages describing Flora’s birth and introduction to hive life; they didn’t feel too gimmicky or Beatrix Potter-y. Slowly things start to get weirder and the anthropomorphising gets a little more serious. When the bees are described as eating pastries and pitchers of nectar then it started to feel a little silly and harder to justify to my sceptical co-workers.
It’s a tiny but infuriating thing about this book: everything is so close to being perfect. There are just odd little moments or occurrences that just stand out. The supposedly insignificant human embellishments on hive society that stick out like a fucking sore thumb. I’d have been much happier if Paull had stuck to her more factual descriptions. It’s clear that a lot of research went into the novel and it seems fucking stupid to dilute all that with a load of twee descriptions of bees acting like human beings.
These slight misses can be seen throughout the book: with similar lapses being visible in the plot and characterisation. There are so many random events and unusual decisions made just so Flora can get to where she needs to be for the narrative to work. For the first half of the book at least, Flora feels less like a character and more like a vapid narrative tool. Everything is circumstantial and the narrative is annoyingly episodic rather than flowing.
However, Paull’s writing is fucking beautiful regardless of this. The prose envelops your senses in much the same way as the Queen’s Love hypnotises her loyal daughters. The description of Flora’s first few flights in her new role as forager are, frankly, breathtaking. From the second Flora gains her freedom we start to see her fleshing out. The scenes within the Dance Hall where she communicates direction and key foraging spots are full of joy. She finally has purpose and desires.
The second half of the book is almost at odds with the first and becomes more akin to the publisher’s desire to create “Watership Down for the Hunger Games generation”. With her newly found independence from the hive mind kicking in, Flora is able to see beyond the Queen’s Love and uncover a disastrous secret. The Beessuddenly becomes Watership Downmeets fucking John LeCare or some shit.
However, there are still unanswered questions here: the plot still feels fractured and unsure of itself. The political thriller at the centre of Flora’s story is less clear than the spotlight Paull places on social and racial difference. There are so many oddities that are just unexplained: why is Flora so special for fuck’s sake? It leaves the reader a little bewildered and attempts to compensate by mixing them up in too much drama and action to notice.
I don’t wish to give the impression that I disliked The Bees because I didn’t: I fucking loved it. I loved it from the moment I read the plot summary on the dust jacket. As a debut, it paves the way for a strong future and, despite it’s insect-based setting, speaks to its audience on many familiar levels. It’s hardly necessary to point out that the strict class system, scenes of unadulterated violence and the devotion to an almost unseen ruler all reflect real-world totalitarian states. Nor does it seem worthy to waste time commenting on the importance of gender within the narrative, the book has often been compared to The Handmaid’s Tale for good reason.
Despite all of this good stuff, I can’t help but wish it had been better: perhaps shorter, less playful in areas and more defined in terms of plot. It didn’t blight my enjoyment per se but I found my attention drifting through parts and waiting for the action to pick up again. Although, it did increase my fascination for bees: they sound fucking awesome.