Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Bees by Laline Paull

The BeesThe Bees by Laline Paull
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Bees by Laline Paull

In the spirit of George Orwell's Animal Farm, Laline Paull's debut novel, The Bees, wings readers through a life of adventures seen through the lens of Flora 717, a worker bee from the titular colony.  Flora is a bee of singular distinction, unlike her sisters; she is larger, stronger, and independent, with willpower that is unmatched by most other bees in the hive.  In the world of the hive, the Queen and the collective are placed above the individual and every bee lives by the credo “accept, obey and serve”.  While for most bees the Hive Mind reigns, Flora is an outsider, a loner at the centre of this great crowd. And beyond her physical, intellectual and social differences there is something else - she holds secrets. 

We follow her journey through life starting with the moment she emerges from her cell.  She is a sanitation worker, the lowest caste in the hive, born only to serve the colony by cleaning the hive.  But early on we learn that she is unusual.  Whereas other sanitation workers spend their lives shuffling about the hive, eyes downcast, taking instruction from any and all other bees, Flora sets herself apart immediately by doing something that no other sanitation worker dares - she speaks.

We witness her education as she performs a variety of roles in the hive, a privilege not normally afforded other bees.  She spends time in the nursery where the Queen’s eggs develop into the larvae that will soon be new members of their society.  She works as a forager, leaving the hive to hunt for pollen amongst the flowers of the orchard and beyond.  Her travels bring her into contact with other members of the insect world, crossing paths with spiders, flies and wasps among others.  They also give her insight into some of the truths and secrets of her society that aren’t normally shared with the collective.  This knowledge, and her unwillingness to conform lead to challenges for Flora that will test her courage, wisdom and perseverance.  Can one bee stand against tradition and the colony?

Beyond the story of Flora, The Bees is a novel that explores a variety of issues and ideas.  It is a study of a caste-based society and the struggles facing anyone who opposes its rigid, unyielding structure.  It explores the inequities of life for those in the lowest strata as compared to those who exist in the circle of influence and power.  The power in this society is concentrated in the small subset known as Sages, who act as priestesses of the colony and serve the Queen who reigns over all.  And in the world of this hive, this power and control is exerted through blind devotion to the Queen and collective.  The story uses images of religious fervour, invoking the traditional language of Christianity, even going so far as to use a modified version of The Lord's Prayer.  At points in the story, the religious devotion reaches a cult-like fervour, with bees following directives unquestioningly, and sometimes to their death.

Violence is another theme frequently presented throughout The Bees. The hive is often portrayed as a police state, with the word of the Sages enforced by bees serving as police who seem more like assault troops than peacekeepers.  Bees quiver and cower in their presence and punishment by death is prevalent.  Indeed, the law of the hive leaves little room for leniency and many bees meet an early death at the hands of these enforcers. At other times Paull’s use of description become nearly erotic.  The relationship between the bees and the flowers that they search out for pollen is portrayed in tones of yearning and deep need. Flowers beg bees for their caress, wantonly sending out their fragrances in desperate, unabashed desire.  

The book also plays with issues of gender, politics, the fouling of the environment, rebirth, motherhood, loyalty, succession and balance. It is a study of a society and the struggles of one bee that doesn’t fit the mold prescribed for her by that society. It is an interesting tale, providing insight into the world of bees and a variety of topics for the reader to consider. We cheer for Flora, sympathizing with her as she struggles to do her part to serve her sisters and fulfill her role in the hive while still being true to herself. It is a role we can see ourselves in and this little bee exemplifies the courage required to fly in the face of adversity. We should all be lucky to be so endowed.

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