I was certainly intrigued about Laline Paull’s ambitious debut novel The Bees. Shortlisted for the 2015 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, it is a dystopian thriller of sorts – set in a beehive.
The protagonist is Flora 717, a humble working bee, considered to be of low status. However as the story progresses, Flora becomes stronger and braver in the face of some difficult and terrifying circumstances from enemies inside and outside of the hive. With this her status grows.
There is a strong theme of the roles of women in society, particularly the emphasis on childbearing and who should be allowed to breed. This reminded me a little of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaids Tale – one of my favourite novels. As an anthropomorphic novel, I found the scenes focusing on children and maternal instinct to be the strongest. There were passages in the story where I almost forget the characters were bees. This maternal love was beautifully described: ‘She could not help it – her arms cradled it softly, her antennae bent to feather it with loving touches, and her heart swelled with love’
Other sections of the book are chilling as this image of a totalitarian society is unveiled. The unnerving image of the sanitisation workers carrying bodies to the morgue, the fertility police inspecting the nursery for any ‘unauthorised’ eggs. Then there is this sense of hierarchy – bees of different kin, creating this idea of class and status, of which Flora tries to break free. Whilst in part these bees come across as very human there are other moments when they appear monstrous and brutal – particularly when members of the hive do not adhere to ‘Accept. Obey. Serve’
Aside from the political themes that arise the depiction of the hive itself was vivid. Paull has treated readers to a beautiful glimpse into this insect world and the city that lies within the hive. It was all believable (with the exception maybe of a Patisserie!) with its tales of corridors and chambers and hexagons.
The Bees is well worth a read, particularly for any readers interested in dystopian fiction. This is a chilling look at society that certainly has an interesting cast of characters. It’s an exciting debut that has turned what appears to be a mundane world into an extraordinary one. Life, death, relationships and finding your place. I for one won’t look at a bee in the same light again…