The Bees, Paull’s debut novel a was shortlisted for the 2015 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. She didn’t win, but she was in the esteemed company of Anne Tyler, Rachel Cusk, Ali Smith and Sarah Waters. Despite this and other plaudits, I still approached it with some trepidation. I like animals and I likes stories about animals. Who doesn’t like Black beauty for goodness sake, but I still wasn’t sure I wanted to read a story about bees. Not just a story about bees, but a story where all the characters are bees, talking bees.
How wrong I was. This is one of the most innovative and imaginative novels I have read in a very long time.
This is the story of Flora 717, a bee born into the lowest class of hive society as a sanitation worker. Along with all the other bees her role is to serve the queen and keep the hive functioning. Flora, despite her lowly beginnings is special. She earns herself time in the queens sacred presence and she learns what it is to sacrifice all for the queen. Against all the odds she survives internal massacres, predator invasions and treachery within the hive.
There is so much detail in this story and as someone that knows very little about bees I am unqualified to judge how much is true and how much is exaggerated truth or pure fiction. Whichever it is I learnt so much about the life of bees whilst buying completely into the complexity of their lives told within this story. Parts of this are especially tender, in particular the depiction of Flora giving birth.
“This egg glowed golden and smelled sweeter than Devotion. Flora felt her body wet with liquid wax, and quick and grateful she brought it forth handful by handful building up the roughest crib directly in front of the cocoons. Then she knelt and held her egg close thrilling to its living vibration. Though slightly larger, it was the same shape as before – and Flora vowed that this time she would feed her little son everything he needed to grow strong – and discover what she must do to seal him in Holy time”
Like many others I know it took me a little while to get going with this novel, but once I did I couldn’t stop. My advice to anyone contemplating reading this would be, just go with it. Abandon yourself to the magic and dive right in. I can fairly confidently say you will never look at a bee in quite the same way again.
Image: Changing Pages