Christmas is over. The weather is cold, and the bees are clustered. What is a beekeeper to do? This beekeeper reads. While browsing at my local library, I happened upon the novel The Bees by Laline Paull (HarperCollins Publisher, copyright 2014). The book describes the inner working of a bee colony whose hive is located in an abandoned orchard. The story is told from the perspective of Flora 717, a bee born to the lowly class of sanitation workers. The author skillfully describes nearly every possible event within the life of the colony including: wasp attacks, a mouse invading the hive box, repercussions of climate change, contact with pesticides, spreading disease, mating, loss of habitat, swarming, and my personal favorite…..The Visitation. The Visitation is when the beekeeper comes and takes honey from the hive. The Visitation is one of the things the bees fear the most. The book describes a cut throat world where the ruling class clings to power, and the motto of all bees is, “Accept, Obey, and Serve.”
Some of the on-line book reviews describe the book as a dystopian novel that is a cross between The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale. I didn’t find the book to be that dramatic, and I think since President Trump got elected people are just agitated and looking for ways to use the word dystopian. I read that word maybe 10 times in my life prior to 2016, and now I see it almost daily. When I see the word these days I am reminded of the line from the movie The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
This book contains some beautiful prose, and Paull is a gifted writer who clearly did her homework on bees and beekeeping. She does take some artistic license for the sake of her plot, but you have to expect that when reading a book that anthropomorphizes an insect that dies in a few weeks. The only criticism I have of the book is that it is heavy on description and short on plot points and character development. I was about a third of the way through the book before I determined the crux of the plot. The plot really picks up in the second half of the book, but I thought it dragged a bit in the beginning. The book introduces many different characters that interact with Flora 717, but most of the interactions are fleeting and transactional. We don’t see relationships evolve over time, which is what keeps me wanting to read a book. I didn’t mind how long David Copperfield was because Charles Dickens wrote dozens of creative characters that became intertwined with David. I kept reading Anna Karenina and slogged through Tolstoy’s monologues about Russian society because I wanted to find out what was going to happen after Anna started an illicit affair with Count Vronsky. I didn’t find any of these strong hooks in The Bees. What I did find was a beautifully written book that came along at a time when this beekeeper was obsessing over whether or not her bees will make it through the winter. Reading a book that offered a picture of what might be actually happening inside the hive box was satisfying.
I wondered how non-beekeepers viewed the book, so I did a search on WordPress to see if anyone else wrote a review. I found this delightful post by a non-beekeeper who loved the book. The reviewer was at first unsure if a book about bees would provide enough material (insert your gasp here), but she was pleasantly surprised. After reading the review by Goddess In The Stacks, I was left with the feeling that I would enjoy having a cup of coffee and a conversation with this person, and that is why I have come to enjoy writing and reading blogs. I have stumbled across so many interesting posts written by interesting people with diverse backgrounds and unique points of view. Blogging has begun to restore some of my faith in humanity. I encourage you to browse WordPress just to see what you discover.
The book’s rating on Goodreads was 3.69 out of 5 after more than 26,000 ratings. The Amazon rating was 4.3 out of 5 after 777 ratings. Lots of people compared the book to Watership Down and the Rats of NIMH trilogy. I didn’t read the former, but I have read the latter as a child and loved the books.
If you don’t feel like reading the book, try the audio book read by Orlagh Cassidy. I love audio books, and there is nothing like having a work of fiction read by a professional actress. Don’t believe me? Check out the podcast series Selected Shorts which features great short stories read live on stage by actors. You will be amazed at how a story comes to life when it is read well. I could listen to Stockard Channing read Eudora Welty’s short story “Why I Live at the P.O.” every day because Channing is just that good.
Hopefully The Bees will help you get through the long winter nights and kindle your curiosity about what is happening within the walls of your hives. Spring is coming.