Friday 26 February 2016

The Bees by Laline Paull

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“The cell squeezed her and the air was hot and fetid. All the joints of her body burned from the frantic twisting against the walls, her head was pressed into her chest and her legs shot with cramp, but her struggles had worked – one wall felt weaker.”

Thus opens Laline Paull’s remarkable novel, The Bees, which follows a year in the life of beehive in an English orchard threatened with redevelopment.

Through the eyes of one bee – Flora 717, a sanitation worker who rises above her lowly status – we go from the uncertain bounty of summer, through the privations of autumn, to the cold of winter, when the surviving bees huddle together in the Cluster – and on into spring, which brings both terrifying threat and new promise to the colony.

Laline Paull's interest in bees began following the death of a much-loved friend who happened to be a bee-keeper. As she says on her website:

“I knew I had a book when I found out about the laying worker, that one in ten thousand sterile female bees, who suddenly, and for no known reason, start forming eggs in their bodies and become fertile – the sole role of the queen of the colony.”

Flora 717 is an anomaly from the start, “obscenely large,” and “excessively ugly,” she narrowly avoids being culled at birth for excessive variation. Time and time again her bravery and quick wit prove invaluable to the hive, yet she may also carry within her its greatest threat to its society.

Some degree of anthropomorphism is inevitable, in order to make a bridge between our human brains and the bees, and in order to make this a page-turning narrative, not a biology textbook. But don’t expect the inhabitants of the hive to resemble the ants in Disney’s A Bug’s Life. This world is based on painstaking, meticulous and (as far as I can tell from my limited knowledge) reasonably accurate observation of bee behaviour.

Paull then takes that leap that allows us to imagine what it is like to live under a ruthless yet essentially benign dictatorship, to share a consciousness, in part, with thousands of sisters, to communicate stories through smell and information through vibration and movement.

“Finding a space by Flora, she began to dance. Slow and clear she stamped out a simple phrase, over and over until the bees understood it and the rhythm caught [...] Go South! sang the bee’s steps. For this long!”

We experience the relationship between the bees and the precious flowers they feed on, feel the devastating effects of chemical insecticides, and the threat posed by predators like wasps and mice.

We also experience a love unlike any human love. The centre of the bees’ world, round which everything else orbits, is the Queen, the Holy Mother, “magnificently large, with long, shapely legs and a tapering abdomen, full and buoyant under the golden tracery of her folded wings.” Her scent entrances her daughters with the sense of being loved and induces instant and profound devotion.
Only just below the Queen in status are the Drones, lazy, gluttonous, priapic, and seemingly the hive’s comic turn – until winter comes.

Margaret Atwood described Paull’s language as ‘Keatsian.’ Indeed, every page is a rich appeal to the senses – especially those of scent and taste and touch, which we often neglect in favour of sight and sound.

There are occasional phrases she uses which, if taken too literally, can make this world seem, briefly, too ‘cute’ and humanised, such as when writes of bees opening 'doors' in the hive, or making 'patisserie.' This is not, I think, Paull’s intention. The trick is to accept them as attempts to express in human language what we have no words for.

This book received a fair amount of attention early in 2015 (when it was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize) but it has been forgotten far too quickly. Comparisons have been made with The Handmaid’s Tale, Watership Down and The Hunger Games. Some reviewers have scratched around, trying to decide what comment Paull is making on human society. But I suspect its message is simpler than that. This is about opening our eyes to the astonishing complexity of what bees do for us, to our dependence on them, and to their vulnerability to our heedless actions.

For those (usually bored white middle aged men) who say that there are no new stories left, all I can say is – perhaps you are looking in the wrong places.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis; The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber.

Avoid If You Dislike: Anthropomorphism, however meticulously and scientifically based;

Perfect Accompaniment: Toast with honey and a cup of Oolong tea

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available from Amazon


  1. Good review, capturing the qualities of this rather surprising novel. It was one of my 'Four Good Reads' on a recent post on Bookword blog. My book group read it and we were charmed and pleased to have read it. Except the person who hates creepy crawlies.
    Looking forward to Laline Paull's next novel. Caroline

  2. Thanks, Caroline. By an odd coincidence, someone was reading The Bees on the train this morning, while I was on my way to Bare Lit Fest.