Our Mother, who art in labour/Hallowed be thy Womb
Anthropomorphized animals are, generally speaking, the provenance of children’s literature: think Watership Down, The Wind in the Willows, Black Beauty. Yet even those supposedly G-rated books are often darker than they appear at first. The first half of Watership Down is virtually a horror story, with poor little Fiver playing the Cassandra role as a seer whose visions of doom are fatally disregarded. Black Beauty contains harrowing depictions of violence and neglect against working animals. The Wind in the Willows, of course, has its terrifying Wild Wood. Even Winnie the Pooh contains Heffalumps and Woozles, and Peter Rabbit the notorious Mr McGregor. Good writers tend towards the truth, and they present the animal kingdom much as it is: red in tooth and claw, even if our protagonists are usually not the predators.
Laline Paull’s debut novel The Bees, which has been longlisted for the Baileys Prize, is distinctly in this tradition, but no one would mistake The Bees for a children’s novel.
Our protagonist is, in the finest tradition, something of an underdog. (Underbee? No, I promise not to make any puns or portmanteaux during the course of this review. Honestly.) Flora 717 is born into the lowliest caste in her hive: as sanitation workers, her kin are forbidden to speak, and are always the first to be sacrificed in times of low pollen yield and austerity. But Flora can speak, and although ordinarily this would make her worthy of the Kindness (the nature of which, if you’re at all familiar with Orwell, ought to be clear), one of the priestess class–a Sister Sage–chooses to show her mercy and keep her alive. Flora goes from nursery worker to temporary attendant on the Queen, and finally, after showing kindness to a dying forager bee named Lily 500, she takes Lily’s place, as a scout who brings the sustenance of pollen back to the hive. But the most sacred law of all–Only the Queen may breed–is about to be tested, and the whole society of the hive must adapt as a result…
There are some great things about The Bees: its ambition, for one thing. Its content would be hard enough to pull off (how do you create empathy for an insect?) without the heavy thematic load with which beehives are also freighted. Renaissance philosophers used them as mini-metaphors for the autocratic monarchies by which they themselves were governed; such strict hierarchy can easily be made into a mirror of humanity. Some of this comes across strongly, like Flora’s anger at the seemingly unstoppable power of the priestesses, and the profound adoration that all of the bees feel for the Queen, who is referred to as Holy Mother, both their progenitor and their divinity. Some of it is more slippery: the relationship between the drones and the female bees, for instance, seems to gesture towards commentary on human male-female relations, but is at various points either too heavy-handed or too vague to be effective. Meanwhile, the question of how to create empathy for a bee remains only half-answered. We do feel for Flora, but that is mostly because we see things through her eyes (antennae–ok, enough). I never got a sense of Flora as a character, never felt as though I understood her personality or individuality. Maybe this is intentional, since a member of a collective consciousness can only ever have a certain level of individuality. Yet the whole point of the novel was Flora 717’s uniqueness, and although I didn’t need her to be some kind of superhero, I did expect a little bit more…differentiation.
Paull has one particular tactic which turns up again and again, and which makes the reading experience more challenging than it otherwise would be: she writes a scene, gets nine-tenths of the way towards resolving it, and then introduces either an absolute emergency (wasp attack, sudden appearance of the fertility police, etc.) or a mere obstruction (call to prayer, returning foragers). Possibly this is meant to mirror the contingency of insect life, but the effect of rushing from crisis to crisis is that we have a hard time working out what’s actually happening, and whether it’s important or not. It’s the sort of problem that I imagine arises from not quite having worked your plot out clearly in your mind, and a strict editor or agent could have picked up on it.
The plot becomes more urgent about three-quarters of the way through. That also suggests to me that Paull knew her premise and how she wanted to end, but found the midsection difficult to plan. Still, once the fight for supremacy within the hive is on, it’s absolutely gripping: the political violence rivals Game of Thrones, which I know is quite an assertion, but you read the massacre scene (not a huuuge spoiler) and tell me you didn’t think of the season 2 riots in King’s Landing. There are also some redeeming sections of prose, such as a disturbingly evocative description of greenhouse flowers, including a Venus flytrap, which had me feeling both sick and fascinated. The ending has a lovely circle-of-life neatness, and I did close the book feeling satisfied.
Does The Bees deserve its place on the Baileys longlist? Probably, if mostly for the singularity of the idea and the sheer balls required to execute it in the first place. Is Paull a prose stylist? Not really–and how you feel about that probably determines how you’ll feel about this book. Conceptually, it’s fascinating; in practice, it sometimes underdelivers. Though I sure as hell won’t be looking at honeybees (or spiders, or wasps, or bluebottles…) in the same way ever again.
I read this for Shiny New Books’ inaugural book club: come join in the conversation (link to be posted when live)!