Laline Paull’s debut novel The Bees is on the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist for 2015 and it’s the first five-star book I’ve read this year; I cannot recommend it enough. It tells the story a hive of bees facing their very own apocalypse; an end of the world tale told on a very small scale.
Born into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is deemed fit only to clean her orchard hive. Yet Flora has talents that are not typical of her kin. And while mutant bees are usually instantly destroyed, Flora is reassigned to feed the newborns, before becoming a forager, collecting nectar and pollen on the wing. Before long she finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, learning secrets both sublime and ominous.
A lot of reviews have compared this novel favourably with The Handmaid’s Tale, and I have to agree. Told from the point-of-view of Flora, a single bee in an artificial hive, The Bees presents an intimate story set in a society that’s at once utterly alien and strangely familiar. As in The Handmaid’s Tale, our protagonist’s experiences are neatly bookended by observations from a distant, disconnected civilisation looking in and trying to understand from limited information — in Flora’s case, the humans who own the land that contains her hive.
Like The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s also a female-driven story deeply concerned with roles, privilege and position in society, and how religion and conformity can mould and control a population.
“…kindly recall that variation is not the same as deformity”
The hive Flora is born into is brilliantly described as a strict caste-based theocracy, with control wielded through a combination of segregation, religious indoctrination, brain-washing and pheromone mind control. Mantras preaching the hive Queen’s love and divine right to rule and breed guide the actions of every bee, from the Queen’s own holy handmaidens down to the lowliest sanitation worker. To work for the Queen and for the Hive is the greatest good; laziness, greed, and — worst of all — to breed — is not only a crime, but a mortal sin.
Flora is unusual, born a sanitation worker, but physically bigger and tougher, with darker pigmentation. Fearful of being sentenced to the euphemistically named kindness, she is instead recognised as an asset — or at least tolerated — and put to a number of tasks within and eventually outside the Hive. We meet wasps, with whom the bees compete and wage war, and spiders, who are portrayed as mystical soothsayers, able to divine the threads of fate from within their webs — but at a high cost.
I really enjoyed this novel a lot. There’s a lot to think about in the alien society we’re presented with. It’s strange and brutal and unknowable, but it’s shot through with love and moments of beauty, and the whole novel is cleverly and beautifully written.