The Bees by Laline Paull
When I first read the synopsis for The Bees, I wasn’t exactly impressed. The story of Flora 717, a rebellious young woman in the ‘Hive’ sounded like generic YA dystopian nonsense. I was much more intrigued when I found out that it was about actual, non metaphorical, bees. I kind of love the idea of a book with a bee as the protagonist and Laline Paull genuinely pulls it off. I’ll still kill any bee which so much as comes near me, but I’ll feel a little bit bad about it now, so Paull has succeeded in making me empathise ever so slightly with the horrible little bastards.
Flora 717 is a cleaner bee, of a type generally unable to speak and good for nothing more than basic hive maintenance. The hive is rigorously structured, with the Queen and her attendants at the top with Flora and her ilk right at the bottom. Immediately, it is clear that Flora 717 is different, demonstrating the ability to talk and think independently so she is whisked off to a new life in the larvae nursery. Whilst slavishly devoted to her Queen, Flora’s independent streak sees her take on a variety of roles in the hive, drawing attention to herself and putting her in danger. Meanwhile, the hive is threatened by a range of problems, from immediate threats like wasps to more esoteric concerns such as climate change.
The biggest achievement of this book was the way that it manages to make you empathise with something so alien. It must have been a tricky balance to pull off; on the one hand, the alienness of the bees was the main draw of this book for me but without a somewhat humanised figure it would be difficult to latch onto this book as anything more than a curiosity. Flora’s emotions are recognisibly human, but her way of perceiving and interacting with the world is very different and compellingly drawn. The actual arcs of the story are fairly familiar, but expressed in such a strange way that it doesn’t feel in any way dull.
Paull shows a lot of versatility as she writes, with many outstanding scenes. There are some wonderfully tense airborne battles with wasps and other creatures, with Paull evoking fighter pilots taking down enemy combatants. There are also some really spooky scenes involving spiders which manage to be genuinely chilling, although the most unsettling moment belongs to a lone slug. There are frequent and shocking moments of truly hideous violence, with Paull showing the sudden and unthinking cruelty of nature in an unflinching manner. One of the more bizarre passages involves Flora collecting pollen for her hive, which I can only describe as unsettlingly erotic.
Flora is not a memorable character in of herself, with this being a story which avoids a focus on individual characterisation, which makes sense considering that this is about a hive mind. Probably the most entertaining figures of the book are the drones, rare male bees who exist only to find a princess and breed. They’re all addressed as ‘Sir’ and are amusingly useless, hedonistic and pampered yet spraying pheromones which make the other bees adore them. One in particular, Sir Linden, is one of the more memorable and engaging figures in the book.
The Bees is a strange book which keeps just enough normality to justify its novel length. This is the kind of ambitious idea which could have been unbearable, but Paull pulls it off with aplomb. If the premise interests you as much as it did me, go for it.