The Bees: A Novel
by Laline Paull
"Flora did not hear the rest. With the slightest press of intention the air rushed beneath her wings and the apple trees fell away below. She took a strong, high course, and as her antennae automatically adjusted to flight position, she felt a channel open deep within them through which streamed Lily's knowledge and aerial skills." (p 111)
From the first page of chapter one I found this novel thoroughly riveting. The protagonist, a bee like all the other characters in this fantasy, is Flora 717 who is born into a caste of the humblest of workers in a honeybee hive: the Sanitation workers. All other workers are associated with specific flowers: where the Teasels work the Nurseries, the Thistles guard the hive, and Sage priestesses govern in the Queen's name, Floras are dismissed as unworthy of differentiation and forbidden to speak. But from her emergence in the opening chapter, 717 is marked by a Sage priestess as unusual: much larger and uglier than her kind, she speaks and also has the capacity to produce royal jelly, called Flow, at a time when the Hive is in dire need of more nurses. This first distinction leads to more, and Flora 717 gradually becomes involved in complicated and dangerous activities. She is reminiscent of a Cinderella who appears to belong to the scullery but instead finds herself more and more at home in the highest reaches of the Hive Hierarchy.
The author, Laline Paull, demonstrates all this with a lovely prose style that sounds a bit like that of an ancient royal clan, but without detracting from the suspense and action of the plot. Furthermore, the way Paull portrays the bees' world through scent, heat, and movement is effective. There were moments of an all too noticeable tendency to anthropomorphize — a bee prodding another bee with a stick, for instance — but none of the stylistic choices seemed to intrude; rather they fade into the background as the bees story, that is Flora 717's story, takes the forefront.
The bees develop a relationship with flowers by seducing them through pollination; they name all the Hive's enemies The Myriad; the first encounter experienced by Flora 717 of a battle with Wasps is tremendously exciting; and they have scent-painted histories of the Hive in a sort of library. The result of all of this is both evocative and beautiful.
I enjoyed the novel tremendously, much as I have previously enjoyed animal fables like Narayan's A Tiger for Malgudi, London's Call of the Wild, and Adams's Watership Down. Paull's belongs in this territory as she focuses on the rhythms and mores of animals even though she eschews using metaphor for political or social allegory. This novel begins and ends with the Hive, effectively dramatizing its life cycle. This is underlined by book-ending the story with reference to the human owners of the property, including the Hive and, in doing so, underlining the indifference of the bees to the humans. This is a tantalizing and tremendous fantasy that takes the reader on a wonderful journey into the world of Bees.