Last night marked the first meeting of my new book club.
When I finished my finals, I was sick to death of literary analysis. After all, I had spent the best part of the past seven years having to read books through the lens of academia. I was ready to read what I wanted, when I wanted – whether it was George Eliot or Jilly Cooper.
Recently, however, my inner geek has reared her bespectacled head. Every time I finish a book, I have an overwhelming urge to discuss it with someone. I decided there was definitely space in my life for a literary gathering of like-minded book worms. I decided to start a book club, to give us all an excuse to get together, drink wine and analyse character motivation until the cows come home (aka, until the wine is gone).
For our first book, we consulted the Baileys Women’s Prize long list (the shortlist hadn’t been released at the time). As most of us were ex-literature students, to read something modern was an attractive novelty. Funnily enough our choice – The Bees by Laline Paull – later made it onto the shortlist, so clearly we were onto something.
The Bees is a highly unusual novel. Set entirely in a beehive, it tells the story of Flora 717, a worker bee born into the lowest class of society. Due to a genetic anomaly, she has special talents that allow her to move up through the ranks of the hive. The further she rises, the less she is prepared to tolerate the totalitarian regime that keeps each bee in their place. As her mind strengthens against the state, her body begins to rebel in the most forbidden way imaginable.
Although (according to more knowledgeable sources than myself) Paull has taken some liberties with bee biology whilst crafting the novel, she draws us into the world of the hive with remarkable skill. You can almost taste sweet stickiness of the honey they prize so highly. In the best passages, the prose hums.
Endless literary comparisons have been thrown at The Bees: the dystopian, politically-charged The Handmaid’s Tale; the characterisation of Watership Down; a rags-to-riches undertone reminiscent of Cinderella; even the blank-faced brutality of The Hunger Games. Yet The Bees is a fine novel in its own right, tapping into the insect world to explore the human issues of prejudice, class, racial identity and motherhood.
Not everything is clearly explained. Why is Flora so special? How much of Flora’s rebellion is the first priestess (who picks up on Flora’s uniqueness as a newborn) purposefully manipulating? What is the purpose of the bee histories, accessible only by a privileged few?
Ultimately, though, these questions get lost in the wonderful set pieces. I found particular joy in the descriptions of the forager bees and their adventures outside the hive, where Flora battles wasps, plays mind games with psychic spiders and has a near miss with a Venus Fly Trap. The drones, too, are masterfully drawn, with a pompous swagger that belies their fundamental purpose – to inseminate the queen.
Paull does not neglect the key issue facing the bee population – the catastrophic effects of modern farming techniques and global warming. Images of foragers returning to the hive covered in poisonous grey slime after searching for pollen are immensely disturbing. The bees may be personified, but Paull never humanises them so completely that we forget their ultimate powerlessness in the face of human indifference.