Flora 717 is a survivor. Born into the lowest class of the totalitarian hive society she is prepared to sacrifice everything for the Queen.
I was buying a few books for Christmas presents, as you do, and on taking them to the till the sales assistant told they were buy-one-get-one-half-price. So I grabbed another for myself and off I went.
The Bees by Laline Paull was an impulse purchase but the blurb on the back pulled me in. Totalitarian society, numbers for names, and a quote from Margaret Atwood on the inside cover? Yes? Count me in!
Sooo…what I didn’t realise until I started the book was that it is actually about some bees. Actually, little buzzy bees. And it’s a bit weird…
Flora joined the first sanitation detail she found- scrubbing out the Dance Hall. They worked in sombre silence, for nowhere in the hive was the comb more sensitive to the checmical signals of the colony, and it transmitted flashes of fear and pain as the health inspection continued in the hive. Outside in the lobby more floras carried newly dead bodies of ailing house-bees to the morgue, all with the sickly smell of tainted pollen on their mouths, their heads hanging limp after the Kindness.
It seems like Paull has done a bit of research about bees- they make honey, they serve the Queen, they dance to communicate etc. But then she has anthropomorphised the bees to a certain extent to elicit some kind of sympathy or emotional involvement on the part of the reader. This then, to my mind, undermines the original pretense that they are really bees.
They talked to each other all the way through with normal speech but when directing each 0ther to nectar and honey they dance to communicate. There were several places where they talked about the need to dance to communicate, this is how bees communicate but it made no sense in a book where they are all talking to each other.
I mean I assume I am supposed to be outraged that Flora 717 born to a lowly sanitation worker kin is not allowed to speak or leave the hive or be free. But the reason she can’t do that is because she is a bee, and the more Paull reenforces that she is a bee with references to her eating nectar and waving her antanea around, the more I struggle to care about her lack of opportunities in the hive- because she is a bee.
I feel like Paull is trying to have her cake and eat it too. It’s a tension that I imagine exists to a certain extent in all books about individuals struggling in totalitarian regimes; the more you make them individuals that we care about the less they seem to be oppressed. But the problem with this book is that they are bees!
It remind me of Bee Story, the Jerry Seinfeld animated film that was fairly lame, although it did make me laugh. A bee takes the human race to court because we are stealing their honey, cue Sting and a grizzly bear on the stand. Spoiler alert! The bee is successful and human beings have to stop taking the honey from bees, the bees then have too much honey and stop bothering to pollinate flowers. All the flowers in the world die, immediately. Because that’s how things work. They save the day by finding a float made of flowers (pre-cut of course but still in beautiful bloom) and pollinating them or something. And all the flowers in the world burst back to life.
That was a long diversion into Bee Story but I felt it was important.
Anyway, The Bees was an odd read imo but I got through it quite quickly (within a week which is fast given my skill at procrastination). I’m glad I read it as it brought my total reads for 2015 to 10 but I can’t say I would really recommend it, unless you really like bees…