Flora 717 is born into a world where her station in life is determined from birth. As a sanitation worker, she cannot expect even to see the more sacred places in the complex where she lives, but is expected to serve the higher orders selflessly until her death. But Flora is not satisfied with obeying the rules, and as she finds she has abilities far greater than the rest of her class, she starts to break free. This is familiar YA dystopian territory – even down to the inexplicably ‘special’ heroine – but Laline Paull’s debut has a sting in the tail; Flora is a bee, and her world is a hive. It’s this feature of The Bees that has attracted the most positive critical attention, but I found that, however unusual its premise, Flora’s story quickly fell apart.
Flora is a protagonist with no goal. Indeed, this lack of direction is written into the very fabric of the story, as scent trails and mysterious instincts lead Flora towards the next chapter of her story, and she is constantly surprised by her own developing powers. As Flora is whipped in quick succession from the bee nursery, to the guardposts of the hive, to the drone chambers and to the queen herself, it’s hard not to feel that she’s only moving so the reader can get to know all the different parts of the hive. When I first heard about this novel, I joked that it might be like a book I only half-remembered from my childhood, Thomas Keneally’s quasi-educational Ned Kelly and the City of the Bees (1981), but as we follow Flora’s aimless trail, the story does become increasingly didactic. Unlike what I recall of Ned Kelly, however, it’s very difficult to disentangle fact and fiction in The Bees, so we don’t feel as if we’re learning very much.
Flora’s aimlessness means that the novel starts strongly but swiftly loses all its momentum, especially as – despite her explorations – we have little sense of how an ordinary sanitation bee would spend its days, or exactly how far she is transgressing. She breaks a huge number of rules in the first third of the novel, but there are no consequences for her actions, meaning that when she claims to have violated the most sacred taboo of all, it’s already hard to believe she’s in any real danger. This problem is compounded by the uneasy position that the characters occupy – they have essentially human minds, but are forced to play out bee roles. This unworkable compromise means that we actually aren’t sure what death, for example, would mean to Flora, or any of the other bees. Flora tells us that ‘Sisters of all kin were born and died by their hundreds every day’ and, despite the frequent violence of this novel, there seems to be little concern at the loss of a single life. Being asked to care about an individual who only perceives her own value as part of a collective is a difficult thing, and, apart from the length of the bees’ lives, Paull seems uninterested in considering what it might mean to be part of a ‘hive mind’.
Judged as a dystopia, then, rather than as an accurate novel about the lives of bees, The Bees falls significantly short. There is no plotline, little characterisation, and the stakes are very low. Familiar dystopian trappings such as mindless orders – ‘Respect. Obey. Serve’ – and casual sexism – the drones are referred to as ‘Your Malenesses’ – are all present and correct. Much like Tris Prior in Divergent and its sequels, Flora is marked out as special only because those around her are so simplistically drawn, and seem to have had no thought of rebelling. Some reviewers have found an environmental thread running through The Bees, and although this is certainly an important issue, my lack of engagement with the characters meant that this barely registered. I was left feeling that this could either have been a highly experimental novel about a collective mind, or a fully-anthromorphised fairytale about a plucky bee, and that it failed because it tried to be both.
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The Bees was the last novel that I read from last year’s Baileys Prize shortlist, and it will come as no surprise that it was my least favourite. Although I’m very late to the party with this one, having now read all six shortlisted novels, I thought I’d have a go at ranking them:
- The Paying Guests (Sarah Waters). I reviewed this novel briefly here.
- How to be Both (Ali Smith). For me, nothing Smith has written since has ever quite lived up to Hotel World, but I thoroughly enjoyed this outing, and wasn’t surprised that it was the judges’ favourite.
- Outline (Rachel Cusk). I’m not usually a Cusk fan, but I thought this was elegant and clever, encouraging the reader to work hard without ever becoming tiresome.
- A Spool of Blue Thread (Anne Tyler). I’m still not sure what all the fuss is about Tyler, but I have to admit that the 400+ pages flew by.
- A God In Every Stone (Kamila Shamsie). I was drawn in by the issues at stake, but I found most of the characterisation rather thin.
Nevertheless, I liked all five of these novels; 2015 was a strong year for the Baileys, although I’m a little flummoxed that two of my favourite books of 2015, Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven (which would easily have been my winner!) and Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief, didn’t make the shortlist. [Links to my reviews.]
Looking forward to the 2016 shortlist announcement today… Here’s hoping A Little Life is there.