The Bees – Laline Paull

She dragged her body through and fell out onto the floor of an alien world. Static roared through her brain, thunderous vibration shook the ground and a thousand scents dazed her. All she could do was breathe until gradually the vibration and static subsided and the scent evaporated into the air. Her rigid body unlocked and she calmed as knowledge filled her mind.

This was the Arrivals Hall and she was a worker.

Her kin was Flora and her number was 717.

Flora 717 is a worker bee, born to serve in the lowest class of the hive – sanitation. However, Flora is unusual. Catagorised as ‘Excessive variation. Abnormal’ by the hive police, she is saved from certain death by Sister Sage, one of the priestesses. Flora ‘is obscenely ugly…excessively large’ and can speak – highly unusual for her kin. Taken under Sister Sage’s wing (sorry), Flora travels through the hive with her to the Nursery. There she is left as an experiment to see whether she can produce Flow and feed the babies but not before she learns of the concerns of Sister Teasel:

‘They say the season is deformed by rain, that the flowers shun us and fall unborn, that foragers are falling from the air and no one knows why!’ She plucked at her fur convulsively. ‘They say we will starve and the babies will all die…’

Flora’s time in the nursery is successful but it comes to an abrupt end when the fertility police arrive on the ward following the discovery of a wing deformity on one of the newly hatched bees. This can’t possibly be the Queen’s offspring – it would be treason to suggest she could produce a deformed baby, regardless of the impact of climate change – so the imposter’s spawn must be destroyed. A baby is taken from a crib and Flora is ordered to destroy it. Holding the baby, she is unable to do it. The fertility police wrench it from her and devour it. Flora is sent back to sanitation though not for long.

Through a series of not entirely plausible events, Flora manages to work her way through the hive, playing different roles. This way the reader gets to see the entirety of the hive and to understand how it works. Three things are notable here: the Drones, the Queen and the religious aspect of the hive.

Flora first comes into contact with a drone as she walks through the hive with Sister Sage. As one emerges from his compartment in the Drones’ Arrival Hall, the bees treat him like a member of The Beatles in 1964:

…to the sisters’ fervent applause, he showed himself off from many angles, stretching out his legs in pairs, puffing his plume and even treating them to a sudden roar of his engine. They screamed in delight and fanned each other, and some scrambled to offer him pastries and water.

The drones are lazy, vain, selfish, gluttonous, sexist characters. They preen and swagger about the hive but they also bring some comedy to the novel – sometimes with their bawdy lines, but mostly as we laugh at them.

The Queen is obviously important but more so as Flora gets to meet her – not a privilege afforded to many bees. Flora accesses the Hive mind during a crisis in which she fights a wasp who attacks the hive and it is this which earns her the visit to the Queen. During her time in the Queen’s chamber, she learns the stories of the bees and the Queen’s secret.

The religious aspect of the hive is used as a control mechanism. The hive has a very strict power structure, every bee is born knowing their place. The Sage priestesses are the ruling elite, maintaining order through overzealous police officers, the catechism – ‘Desire is sin, Vanity is sin, Idleness is sin, Discord is sin, Greed is sin’ – and the first commandment – ‘Accept, Obey and Serve’.

The Bees is overlong and the way in which Flora moves from role to role is overly contrived to allow the reader to see the workings of the hive through a third-person subjective narrator. However, it is also hugely imaginative and handles its themes with care. Paull takes ideas about climate change, power, religion and sexism and weaves them into a narrative which in it’s best moments is gripping.

I was mostly impressed with this – the imagination at work here gives some compensation for the length and initial structure – and I’m keen to see what Laline Paull comes up with next.

Fellow shadow judge Paola has also reviewed The Bees on her blog. Click here to read it. As has Eric on his.

Thanks to Fourth Estate for the review copy.

0 thoughts on “The Bees – Laline Paull

  1. Opinions seem to be mixed on this one – lots of rave reviews but some not so sure. I think I’ll probably continue dithering as to whether to read it or not.

    • I mostly enjoyed it. It is inventive and it is interesting. I just wish the passing of time had been mentioned in a sentence rather than three chapters of an event that didn’t add anything.

  2. I think the mixed opinions are probably because the concept is sufficiently unusual for people to be bowled over by it, without necessarily reflecting on the quality of the writing, which does at least carry us along. Even in the first paragraph–“her rigid body unlocked and she calmed as knowledge filled her mind”–I was thinking, “SHOW, DON’T TELL!” Paull tells a lot and shows only a little, which, even with the imagination she brings to the story, drags it down.

    • Fair point, Elle. I didn’t actually mind that so much – there’s a fair few big name writers who’ve made a career out of telling! – but I can see how it could be irritating. I forgave it a lot for the concept.

  3. As always, an interesting review Naomi. i read Paola’s review last night and commented that although the cover intrigued me, every time I’ve picked it up I’ve changed my mind and left it in the bookshop. Your review has also convinced me to give it a miss. I’m sure it’s a very clever concept but I don’t think it sounds like a book I could engage with, But I may be wrong…

    • Thanks, Helen. I’m the wrong person to comment on this, I think. If there’s one thing blogging’s taught me it’s that books can be very surprising! Have you read a few pages? I’m a big fan of downloading Kindle samples and seeing what I think of the first chapter or so.

      • Yes, you’re right Naomi, it’s too easy to jump to conclusions. I’ve just been given a Kindle so will take your advice with the sample chapters.

  4. I really enjoyed this book – I didn’t mind the ‘telling’, I assumed it was a deliberate device to give it a Biblical quality if that makes sense. I’d really recommend it to everyone – if just to read the afterword!

  5. Interesting review. I thought very similarly to you but I couldn’t forgive the contrived plot points. I was really disappointed as I’d heard people raving and I love bees and weird bee hivemind behaviour. It also had a similar feel to a Tudor historical fiction for some reason, and maybe that’s why I didn’t get on with it because I’m not a big historical fiction fan.

    • Fair enough. The contrived points were irritating and a real shame I thought. Oooh that’s interesting about the historical fiction. Maybe it was the religion and the hierarchy and, of course, the queen! Great comment. Thanks Debbie.

  6. A great review Naomi, what a unique book and it is good to get your insight on this one, still not entirely sure but interested enough to see if the first few pages grab me!

  7. Having heard good things & read the sample – felt so imaginative & fresh – I was intrigued so downloaded the rest but by a third of the way through started to wane… put it down feelIng I would finish it but have others I want to read first. With your comments, Paola’s & Helen’s (whose comment re lacking story feels bang on) do wonder if I’ll pick it back up…

  8. I finished this this week. I have mixed feelings at the moment, though a lot of my thoughts mirror your review. Emma

  9. Pingback: The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2015 | The Writes of Woman