Posted on August 5, 2016
35. ‘The Bees’ by Laline Paull
I listened to The Bees as an audiobook over the course of a couple of months on my runs (I’m training for a half marathon, because I’m mad).
Reading a book like this is a very different experience, because the book is around for so much longer so it gets to be something of an old friend. An old friend that you associate with physical exertion and pain, that is.
The Bees, which was nominated for the 2015 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, is set in a beehive. Our hero is Flora 7-17, a sanitation bee who is born larger than all her sisters and with skills unusual for her kin. Over time she begins to wonder whether she was made for a special purpose, but in a hive where conformity is paramount, how can an outsider survive?
I really enjoyed how Paull rendered this almost alien world. From the scent trails and barriers that control the bees’ movements through the hive, to the ritualistic sounds and movements of the explorers, to the transmission of thought and knowledge through antennae and special scent panels, there is so much detail that really takes you into the story and absorbs you in the world of the bees. There is a very clear caste system amongst the bees, and the ones in the lower echelons are not treated well by their superiors. The males are on almost the top rung, but, of course, at the centre of it all is the Queen, who is praised like a god and rarely seen by the other bees, except for her holy priestesses and handmaidens.
The story itself is quite captivating, with plenty of moments of threat and tension, but I could generally see where it was going from quite early on. There is a strong ‘chosen one’ vibe about Flora which I don’t usually love, but she was also quite ignorant of her special status throughout so at least she didn’t have the arrogance that usually typifies such characters. The climax was fairly satisfying and I’d be interested to know how much of the fictional bees’ behaviour was based on real scientific research (I’d imagine a lot; Paull herself claims that she spent three to four months researching bee biology).
As for the audiobook – I really enjoyed the narrator’s voice, but she did have a strange habit of mispronouncing certain words. Somehow she thought ‘quadruped’ was pronounced ‘quad-rooped’! As a proofreader that’s the sort of thing I pick up on, and I’m surprised it slipped through the net.
I’m not sure how well this book would have held my interest had I read it on paper; as it was it provided a very welcome distraction from running.
“Accept, obey and serve.”
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!