WHEN golden banded honeybees, so often likened to summer and honey sweetness, become the metaphor of a dystopian version of British Government and the Monarchy, what is one left to think?
Established British playwright Laline Paull’s debut novel, The Bees, represents just that. I may just be reading too much into the buzz, but the Oxford alumni who has had two plays performed at the Royal National Theatre must have some of the country in her subconscious as she writes.
The novel follows the life of worker honeybee Flora 717, born of the lowest class of bee society. In a world where mutation and difference is destroyed on sight, the larger-than-average Flora is saved from destruction by opportunities born from austerity in the hive, where ‘the season is deformed by rain, and the flowers shun’ the bees, so they need every available worker.
The life of the honeybee turns out to be symmetrical of Plato’s Republic and his utopia, where children are told what role they will have in life based on their ‘blood’. Plato divided the bronze craftsman, silver guardians and golden philosophers, and Paull divides bees in their ‘kin’ groups, named after flowers, and are priestesses to police, foragers who can fly outside the hive to the sanitation Flora, the lowest, and are given ‘no flower’. ‘A Flora may not make Wax for she is unclean, nor Propolis for she is clumsy, nor ever may she forage for she has no taste, but only may she serve her hive by cleaning,’ but the talented Flora 717 wants more.
Throughout the novel, Paull shows the same attachment to characters as George R R Martin, author of the Game of Thrones novels; the frequent loss deepens the heartbreak Flora must overcome as she fights to defy her set fate and claim the most illegal of desires. No reader will escape the anguish that concludes each new adventure.
The hive is akin to a cult, with leaders keeping their inferiors in check, with fear, intoxication and just a little hypnosis. The cult is complete with its own religion, mantra and even a parody of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Hallowed be thy womb’, arguably my favourite part. This made the story really exciting, being on the ‘outside looking in’ as the reader, I wanted to encourage Flora to defy, but felt the fear of going against her sisters (this isn’t a cult bond word, they are all blood sisters, for only ‘the queen may breed’).
Paull’s scriptwriting has nurtured the ability to make the reader visualise her words exactly how she writes them, and that is clear within The Bees. I can see the wax panels that Flora 717 scuttles across as she travels around her hive, I can imagine the wax cribs in the nursery and know the deadly yellow and fine lines of the enemy wasp. In the ‘glass cage’ when Flora discovers the Venus Fly Trap, Paull never mentions the plant by name, but speaks only of their ‘red mouths’ with ‘white filaments’ on each ‘inner lip’, they ‘bore no pollen, the only nectar a viscous slick at the join of the petals’. But for all her beautiful imagery seeping off the pages, The Bees was not a book I have felt submerged in.
I have not had to think so much while reading fiction since the classics like Bronte and Stoker, which may be why I never felt relaxed. Paull does not anthropomorphise the bees, making it hard to identify with the characters and she has created a whole new semantic field unfamiliar to the thoughts of human; one has to start recognising kin, thorax, Flow (regurgitated food), antennae as well a multitude of pollens to keep up with Flora’s world. It is a difficult read, and takes a few chapters to settle into; and yet this is exactly why I would recommend reading it.
Kudos to the author that goes against the norm. The humble black bird we see pecking at bushes for its dinner is turned into a terrifying foe, more menacing than a tigress. The Bees offers a rare insight into a different world, something people adore to escape the humdrum or the ‘busy as a bee’ lifestyle we all choose to live.
There is a distinct human element to the book, which shows our species’ naivety and wishful thinking, much like a backhand slap to wake up once Flora 717 is finally done with you. But rather than be offended, it is refreshing; an unexpected philosophical moment upon completion.
When Richard Adams wrote Watership Down, he had wanted to make a grown up story for children as well as a fairytale for adults; Paull has matched him with a book on politics and dictatorship for young and new adults, who are only just getting to grips with the Government. At 24, I have learnt more on political systems with this book than I have with two general elections. The Bees is exciting, yet it teaches the reader on discrimination and the age old moral of being stronger together.