‘A flora may not make Wax for she is impure, nor work with Propolis for she is clumsy, nor may she ever forage for she has no taste, but only may she clean, and all may command her labour’.
The Bees by Laline Paull, Pg.25
I purchased a copy of Laline Paull’s debut novel, The Bees, when I saw that it had made the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist earlier this year. It was by complete coincidence that it then appeared on the shortlist, announced last month. As I am currently limiting my book-buying, for the very sensible fact that it will cost me more money than the books themselves to send back to the UK, I will probably only read The Bees and Ali Smith’s How to be Both (which I am currently halfway through and enjoying immensely) before the winner is announced.
The Bees tells the story of Flora 717, a sanitation worker who defies her social status from the moment she arrives in the hive. Born the lowliest of the low, Flora is unlike her fellow sanitation workers because she can speak. She is also very inquisitive for her rank and it is this inquisitiveness that leads her through a series of, often, unbelievable events. As Flora works her way up through the different levels of the hive, Paull interestingly allows us to see a whole cross-section of the bee hierarchy and the collective mind that controls it. Flora is given access to sacred areas of the hive – from the Nursery to the Queen’s own chamber, access that is strictly denied to her fellow kin – although, at times, this can seem a bit contrived and a stretch of the imagination. Paull’s character can be seen both as a plot device to highlight the intricate structure and workings of the hive, whilst at the same time Flora comes across as a very complicated and conflicted individual. I found myself constantly switching from enjoyment to frustration at the sheer translucency of this device.
‘It is to the honour of your kin! You are so numerous that we can easily spare a few to ensure good hygiene. It is your privilege: Accept, Obey and Serve!’
The Bees by Laline Paull, Pg.102
Flora 717 begins life as a very devout worker bee – willing to work hard and do the Queen’s bidding without question. Almost cult-like, the Queen is able to control her hive through chemicals and smells. Paull wonderfully captures the different ways in which these insects communicate with one another. Not only can the bees communicate through speech, but they can pass on information telepathically through scents and chemicals and through the medium of dance, particularly when giving directions to fellow foragers about where to find pollen.
‘When I was with Holy Mother in her chamber, she gave me her love. And then when I laid – I felt it for my own eggs. And I changed’.
‘Changed, 717? From an ugly monstrous deviant that should have been killed on emergence? What, pray, do you think you changed into?’
‘A loving mother’.
Sister Sage burst out laughing.
‘No, Sister, I promise you – what I feel for my child is stronger even than Devotion’.
The Bees by Laline Paull, Pg.304
What is most striking about Flora is her unrelenting strength in the face of adversity. There is a sickness infecting the hive and Flora 717 hides a terrible secret, though she cannot tell anyone about it or allow anyone to find out. As her love for the Queen turns into increasing disillusionment, Flora becomes an expert at sealing her communication channels.
‘Knowledge only causes pain to your kin’.
The Bees by Laline Paull, Pg.10
It was interesting, whilst reading The Bees, to witness how everything revolves around the Queen’s reproductive cycle. At the time of reading this book I was also partway through the beginning of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which focuses on the differences between the sexes in different animal species. There was a section on bees, which highlights the Queen’s absolute devotion to reproduction. As the only bee who can lay female worker-bees (unless in very rare circumstances), it is the Queen’s duty to lay eggs as frequently as possible. She is essentially a slave to her reproductive system and once she can no longer lay, she is rendered useless. It was also highlighted how male bees, or drones – as they are commonly known – are only useful for one thing, which is mating with the Queen bee. Otherwise, they are completely unnecessary and a drain on resources. This comes into play when the hive in The Bees is getting ready to hibernate for the winter. As there are limited food supplies to see them through, the worker bees collectively destroy all of the drones for the practical reason that they would only be another mouth to feed.
‘She ripped his abdomen open down to his genitals, then tore out his penis and ate it. Sisters screamed in excitement as his blood splashed on their faces’.
The Bees by Laline Paull, Pg.213
The hive does what it has to, to survive, and this is shown mercilessly in Paull’s novel. Not only was this scene, above, written grotesquely and superbly, but it also brought to mind a sense of mob-mentality (as any story written about animals is often comparable to human society). I couldn’t help but see similarities in human behaviour and human history.
Overall, I found Paull’s debut novel a very interesting read. Bees are a fascinating species and it was refreshing to see a feisty, strong, female worker bee take centre stage. There were moments in the novel that I enjoyed and which I raced along to finish but there were also elements of the plot that felt very contrived. I also foresaw the ending quite early on, so there were no unexpected surprises. It will be interesting to see what the other shortlisted books are like for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. As I stated before, I am halfway through Ali Smith’s How To Be Both, which is already a much more satisfying read than The Bees.