The Bees by Laline Paull

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Reviewed by Bookgazing

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Flora 717 begins life as a voiceless sanitation worker, set to clean bodies and waste from her hive. She occupies the lowest rung of society, but through a combination of her own special qualities and the favour shown by higher bees she spends her life passing to the higher echelons of the hive until she finds herself within the Queen’s elite circle. Discovering foul plots she doesn’t fully understand within the sacred walls she moves to join the Lily’s, adventurous flying foragers, and so journeys outside the hive. Through Flora’s eye, the reader sees all of bee society and follows the machinations of the devious priestesses, the Sage.

There’s no question that Laline Paull’s book is a weird one. Who thinks to set an entire political thriller novel inside the walls of a bee hive? We need more truly odd novels pushing at literatures boundaries and Paull gets maximum points for concept. However, it’s the way Paull has built her book’s weirdness that fascinates me most. For all the talk about this book’s originality, and the supportive quotes from serious literary authors, to me The Bees looks like a good, old-fashioned piece SFF.

The Bees takes a lot of classic SFF elements and smashes them together to give the reader an entertaining ride. Flora is The Chosen One – the one exceptional bee whose unlikely ascendancy is relentlessly backed by the narrative. This book is unafraid of bending rules of lifespan and its concept deliberately breaks with the rigid rules of bee hierarchy to help Flora rise and show the reader the full scope of hive activity. The bee’s attack on the remaining drones is a return to the sometimes brutal world of 1970s feminist fantasy novels. The drones are rakish creations drawn from the courtly fantasy. And the hive, and Flora’s struggle with her place in society, would not look out of place in a young adult dystopian novel. I’d pay to a block buster film adaptation with the malevolent Sage priestess played by Kate Winslett. Just think of the costume.

It is no surprise to see a several enthusiastic, knowledgeable SFF critics praising Paull’s book. Aside from its energetic mix of SFF elements, The Bees is pacey and thrilling. It’s an exciting adventure story and a splashy tale of political intrigue with a truly bizarre and salacious ending. It’s the kind of novel that blows the reader back with the sheer force of its entertaining oddness. The fact that it depicts everyday life for bees makes the reader realise just how cool and expansive the world of these little creatures is. I’m glad to see that so many literary spaces have embraced this curious SFF piece. Perhaps we’re starting to construct rope bridges across that man-made divide between literary and SFF?

Sometimes when reviewing a book, I find myself wanting to talk just as much about the critical reception it receives as the substance of the book itself. The striking cover of this debut includes some odd reactions from big mainstream publications. The Sunday Times thinks The Bees ‘changes the way we see our world’ and several commentators have compared the book to Animal Farm and Watership Down; stories of anthropomorphised animals which reveal truths about our own world. I’m just not sure how far these comparisons really extend. The Bees makes a solid point about general social inequality and totalitarian societies. It further sets up sanitation worker bees as ‘darker’ to allow the book to subtextually discuss racism; Flora, a sanitation worker herself, is subtextually set up as a black action heroine. However, the book strays into repeating stereotypical portrayals by linking these bees to race and centring the story around one exceptional character from their group.

And, the bees’ ideas about gender just do not map neatly onto modern human society. Women do not serve men slavishly because we need men to fulfill some overpowering desire to breed. Human society and gender inequality is a very different affair from that of the bees. To pretend otherwise is to erase feminist history and replace it with a simplistic, false story in the name of solidarity. Paull has not tried to do this – she has written about the fascinating world of bees and fitted a sometimes anthropomorphised action adventure story around their lives. Critics should be careful before trying to make every aspect of bee story jibe with our human world.

It is much more interesting to look at what this novel has to tell us about bee society. Who knew such weird little aliens were living right in our midst? They’re lucky to have found the most enthusiastic champion in Paull, whose passion for the creatures is obvious in the appendices to her book. I can’t imagine anyone who reads this book walking past a meadow or a hive without an awareness of how much poorer the world would be without these little weirdos.

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Intrigued?  This is the title chosen for our first Shiny Book Club read. Click the link to find out where and when we’re going to ‘meet’ to discuss it further!

Laline Paull, The Bees (Fourth Estate: London, 2014). 9780007557745, 344pp., paperback.

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