Book Review: The Bees

Book club chose "First Book by New Author" as this month's "genre". This was, as usual, a fun one to find a book to match. I settled on The Bees after reading it was like Watership Down (which I enjoyed reading a couple times as a teenager, and should probably read as an adult to actually understand the allegories), but with bees. I have a thing for bees right now - meaning as Edmonton develops it's beekeeping bylaws, I'm thinking about getting bees for my garden. I don't really want to keep hives, but I'm willing to have hives in my backyard if someone else will keep them for me (think of it as a land rental arrangement). Or, I've started researching Mason bees as and option. And I'm going to plant more bee friendly plants next summer at least. So I figured this book would maybe help me learn a bit more about our favourite honey makers.

January 2015: New Author First Book

The Bees
By Laline Paull
340 pages

This novel follows the life of Flora 717, a worker bee born into the Sanitation caste of the Orchard Hive. But Flora is different right from the start, and through a series of events, manages to work her way up from Sanitation crew, to Nurse, to Forager. Besides her size and appearance and job swapping abilities, Flora has another secret, one which no one can learn because it's a direct violation of the Queen's laws. Throw in some cult mentality, misogynistic drones, villainous wasps, and prophetic spiders and you've got a solid story.

One critic described this novel as "A rich, strange book, utterly convincing." (Tracy Chevalier). I'd agree. It's strange - I'd describe it as fascinatingly weird. Everything is a bit different, the way the bees communicate, work, and live. Paull assumably did her research and a lot of the story appeals to the naturalist in many of us. In this way, it's an interesting look inside a hive, and probably I won't look at bees the same way again. On top of this quasi-science, Paull creates a cult like religion and the somewhat unbelievable story of Flora to carry us through the lifespan of a bee. Like I said, kind of weird.

So while the natural story is a compelling one, the plot is a bit contrived. The one thing that kept annoying me was how Flora managed to work her way up the caste system through a series of convenient coincidences and unique traits. Though, it strikes me that in a book full of anthropomorphized insects, I can probably let Flora's unbelievable rise to fame slide and I enjoyed reading this book in spite of that. I found myself wanting to know more about the hive and enjoyed following the story arc enough to keep reading. In the end, all the questions are answered and loose ties tied. Circle of life and all that.

I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed Watership Down, or those who find bees interesting and want to learn a bit more about them. It might not be worth a reread but The Bees is definitely worth picking up - especially for all the gardeners out there!