By Laline Paull
Shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015Longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Fiction 2015 Enter a whole new world, in this thrilling debut novel set entirely within a beehive.
Born into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, only fit to clean her orchard hive. Living to accept, obey and serve, she is prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen.
Yet Flora has talents that are not typical of her kin. And while mutant bees are usually instantly destroyed, Flora is reassigned to feed the newborns, before becoming a forager, collecting pollen on the wing. Then she finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers secrets both sublime and ominous.
Enemies roam everywhere, from the fearsome fertility police to the high priestesses who jealously guard the Hive Mind. But Flora cannot help but break the most sacred law of all, and her instinct to serve is overshadowed by a desire, as overwhelming as it is forbidden…Tweet
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A fascinating insight into the life of bees and the workings of a beehive. Interesting references to how bees communicate and the problems caused by the use of fungicides and insecticides together with the struggles of bees to find and reach bee-friendly plants at either end of the honey-making season.
Flora, the heroine of the book is markedly different from others in her colony and shows unusual mobility within a strong caste system and a distopian society. The evocative descriptions make it very easy to imagine what life in a hive might be like.
Definitely a book to recommend to others.
A fantastic dystopian nightmare. An engrossing and fascinating novel, you must try it!
Here's what various members of the V-60 Book Group in Devon felt about this book, which we've read in the run-up to the Bailey Prize:
Susan: "Finished the book last night, what a glorious story, full of wonder and powerful themes -- although I'm surprised that I found the story of a bee so enthralling! (Part of this might be that we have two top bar hives and to help the bees. We feed and nurture them when necessary, but never take any honey. They need all the honey for themselves as book clearly articulates.) Laline Paull's novel was so engaging I felt really emotional at the end. I feel even more aware of the bees in my garden and that the book has deepened my relationship to them. Bravo for the book, the writer, Flora 717 and for our book club for being chosen to read it."
Diana: "I finished reading The Bees yesterday. Still thinking about it -- did I enjoy it? Well, I suppose as I managed to read it even though I was so tired, the answer must be yes. Would I read it again? No. I enjoyed the descriptions, they definately evoked a real image in my mind -- I am one of those people who 'see' a story rather than absorb the 'words' so it was very much like watching a film. Flora 717's emotions were very powerfully described, I can still see her clutching her 'baby' and the way she protected it but what spoiled it for me was giving all the groups those names. I cannot get the image of Sister Teasel or Sir Linden as these little 'pop up' Beatrix Potter type of characters out of my head."
Caroline: "It may be the contagion of exam fever in our household, but although I'm enjoying The Bees, it also seems a bit didactic. I can't say that this is spoiling my enjoyment of the story line, however; I am truly captivated. It's just that I have a little feeling of 'And here is Flora in the Arrivals Hall', 'And here she is in the Sanitation Section'. The structure of the novel, with its short chapters, may perhaps be to remind us of the clearly-defined segregation within the matrix of the hive, but it also leaves me feeling that I am on a whirlwind tour of Bee World with our guide, Flora 717. I feel entertained, enchanted, enlightened and exhausted."
Vicki: "I liked The Bees enough to finish it, but I didn't love the book -- even though I'm interested in the subject of bees, and hoped to. It read more like a children's story to me, comparable to books like Duncton Wood or Watership Down -- which I read with my children, and, to be honest, prefer. It surprises me that The Bees was published as an adult story, and short-listed for the Bailey Prize. Not because it's fantasy, but because it seemed more like a children's fable with a 'message' than the kind of complex novel I associate with Orange/Bailey prize. The Bees was interesting, and I'm glad I read it, but I wouldn't have stuck with it if we weren't reading it as a group."
Terri: "I'm another one who liked it, but didn't love it -- even though I love bees, I love the premise of the book, and I very much wanted to love the book. The writing is strong, the characters are wonderfully alien and interestingly rendered, but the story didn't surprise me in any way -- and the didactic quality of the book prevented me from fully engaging with the tale. I was very intrigued by the premise when I started the novel, but my interest in (and belief in) Flora 717 wasn't sustained the whole way through. This may be because I read a lot of non-realist writing (the literary end of the fantasy field, magic realism, etc.), where there's a lot of extraordinary work being published these days...and by comparison, the fantasy aspect of this one seemed a bit rough around the edges. A good first novel, a good freshman effort, but a strange choice (to me) for a major prize short-list. I was glad I read The Bees, and I will pass it on to bee-loving friends, but I found it disappointing. (And oh, I hate saying that, since I'm always pleased when good fantasy receives serious critical attention! Like I said, I *wanted* to love this book.) On the plus side, I loved Laline Paull's descriptions of the natural world, and though I have reservations about this particular book, I'll happily give her next novel a try based on the strengths in this one."
Natacha: "I haven't finished it yet, but I notice I am looking very closely at bee anatomy as I pass the flowers!"
Amanda: "I've finished The Bees, and it was such a page-turner, that I will have to read it again to delve into some of the deeper themes. I have enjoyed it immensely!"
(Two members of the group, Phillipa and Claire, are still reading.)
Overall opinion: Although some of us loved The Bees and some of us didn't, everyone was glad to have read it and to learn a little more about bee life -- which, being in a rural community with a strong organic farming ethos, is something we're all extremely interested in. While reading the book, we've been sharing articles and information about bees, a video of the birth of Bee Queen, and even bee-inspired music and art. So we're very grateful to Laline Paull for engendering this exchange and these discussions!
We find that as a group we often get the most out of books we don't 100% love, as this prompts a great deal of discussion and debate. In this regard, we recommend The Bees to other reading groups. It is definitely a conversation starter.
And a thank you to Ms. Paull for focusing a spotlight on these important, life-enhancing little beings.
The 12 members of the Last Monday Book Group had very mixed opinions about this book and it pretty much divided us down the middle. Most of us felt some empathy with Flora and the wider hive of bees, but we disagreed about the descriptions of the workings of the hive. Most of us found the descriptions fascinating but some did feel that there was too much description and this detracted from the pace of the plot:
“the descriptions of the hive are very vivid and easy to visualise”
“The tale [was] unique and interesting. I have empathy for Flora, [but] overall the book isn’t gripping.”
“[I] enjoyed reading about the hierarchy and workings of the hive. However I found the story rather dull..”
“ the concept is a fascinating one but not enough to keep me listening”
Overall we liked Flora as a character, empathised with her and often feared for her future in the brutality of life in the hive:
“I was enchanted by her character and …became more concerned for her welfare”
“I was rooting for Flora 717”
One thing that we definitely agreed upon was how we would view bees in the future, not least having more of an appreciation of just how hard bees work to produce honey:
“I would now be interested to get a nature book and read about bees”
“I'm looking at bees in a new light and tasting every spoonful of honey with admiration for the work that it takes to produce”
Whether we enjoyed the book or not, we all felt that it was a very original and often brutal concept:
“the feelings and motives of those involved [in the hive] is truly thought-provoking and it is a very interesting glimpse into another world”
“inspired and totally original”
“harsh and unrelentingly brutal”
Overall we have given this three stars which reflects the range of feelings within the group.
“The Bees” was an unusual read, I’ve never read anything quite like it. The story was predictable, but it sparked my interest in these fascinating creatures. - Alan