Blog – Review of The Bees by Nicola Presley of William Golding Ltd

Friday, May 19th, 2017

Laline Paull’s extraordinary novel The Bees is a dystopian story, with an unusual society, comprised of a hive of honeybees and their enemies. Like many other examples of dystopian fiction, a totalitarian government rules the bees, and their hive is marked with plots, oppression and inequalities.

The novel is told through the viewpoint of Flora 717, a charming and brave protagonist, who is born into the lowest caste of the bees’ society; the sanitation workers. These workers are mute and are the first to be sacrificed if the government decide there is a need, but Flora is different. She is born with the ability to talk and is noticed by one of the priestesses, Sister Sage, who thinks of Flora as an ‘experiment’. In contrast to her kin, Flora is permitted to feed the babies in the nursery with ‘Flow’ and even waits upon the Queen, the kindly matriarch and nominal ruler of the hive. Flora’s defence of oppressed bees, and occasional acts of defiance lead to conflict with the ruling priestesses, the Sages, and she finds herself frequently at risk of death, or the ‘Kindness’, the subtle descriptor for benevolent murder. She also has a secret…

The world of the bees is fascinating and beautifully imagined. The bees communicate through dances, telepathic signals, and smells, and the evocation of the hive is wonderful:
‘A golden mist and soft harmonic chord shimmered from the centre of the great atrium, whose six towering walls were made of interlocking chalices of honey, all capped and consecrated with the Queen’s seal, and curved in to make a domed ceiling.’
A particular highlight of the hive is the Queen’s Library, a collection of six scent tiles that detail the bees’ history. The library is usually only accessible by the priestesses, and the stories contain the full horror and threat in the bees’ world. Paull’s skill in sensory description is remarkable in imparting these stories from Flora’s perspective, and her visceral reaction to discovering more about the ‘Myriad’ (enemies), the ‘Kindness’, and ‘The Visitation’.

The ‘Myriad’ is the bees’ term for all their enemies: the most dominant of these are the wasps who covet their honey; the spiders with whom the bees enter a deadly treaty; and, of course, humans who steal honeycomb and destroy parts of the hive. However, as with all dystopian novels, the main threat to society comes from within. Similarly to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, the bees are taught to acquiesce to their role within their community. Their first commandment: ‘Accept, Obey, and Serve’ is repeated throughout the book, and recalls Orwell’s ‘War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength’ in its ubiquity. Paull doesn’t shy away from portraying the violence that arises in a female-dominated society, much like Naomi Alderman’s recent The Power, shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction. There is a disturbing scene in The Bees which reminds me of a moment in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The female bees are asked to destroy the drones who have been unsuccessful in mating and are therefore a drain on resources in the hive. The drones are killed by a ‘savage mass’ of bees, with one unfortunate drone having his penis eaten in the massacre. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the handmaids are allowed one moment of revenge against the ruling patriarchy society, when they are instructed to kill a man who the government have accused of rape (although the truth is very different). The handmaids fall upon him in ‘bloodlust’.

Paull has set herself a difficult task with this novel – she must make the bees believable as bees, but also has to give the bees human emotions for this to work as an allegory. She succeeds well as the reader is fully drawn into the bees’ society, but she doesn’t compromise on their inherent strangeness and difference from humanity. The result is an exotic mix of the familiar and the alien, and it certainly alters the way in which we view our world. After reading The Bees, one cannot help but look in wonder at these creatures to whom we owe so much. The fact that bees are under threat in the twenty-first century makes the book all the more timely, and thought-provoking. At the very least, The Bees will make the reader think about planting some bee-friendly flowers for pollination:

‘Flora caught a trace of sweetness – bright and young and pure. A flower – a young, beautiful flower. Flora locked onto it. Fragrant beyond buddleia, iris or even honeysuckle, a thread of scent curled from a cube of light against the side of the building.’