“[A] gripping Cinderella/Arthurian tale with lush Keatsian adjectives.”
– Margaret Atwood, via Twitter
I thought a lot about Margaret Atwood while reading Laline Paull’s The Bees, and not just because Atwood’s quoted on the book cover.
Paull’s story of Flora, a freak who stands out in her hive both for her abilities to transcend the rigid hive caste system (sanitation, nurses, sages, queen, etc.) and her unique size and physical characteristics, has strong touches of The Handmaid’s Tale, at least thematically. The demands of rigid conformity don’t work for Flora, and the more hardships this bee and her hive face, the more willing she becomes to crash through boundaries. Much like Offred, Flora pays for her transgressions. Unlike Offred, Flora has a chance for a happy ending.
I also contemplated Toby’s and Pilar’s relationships with the bees in The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam. It seems like such a small part of the Oryx & Crake trilogy, yet it speaks again to man’s resistance against harmony with nature. Toby and Pilar are intimate with the bees, respectful, loving and even conversational, yet the rest of their world tends to view animals as easily ignored mutants (pigoons and the like) or laboratory-grown meat. Here, an unnamed man has a very direct relationship with the bees, but it seems very minor for the bulk of the novel. The negative impact of humans – when Flora’s kin encounter pesticides during their attempts to forage for pollen or the metallic “trees” that emit signals that confuse the bees natural radar – is a much greater part of the story. Man is destroyer at worst, an enormous obstacle to the natural order at best.
However, while Paull touches many of the same themes as Atwood – the treatment of women by men, conformity, religious fanaticism – the author has created a singularly unique work in The Bees. The Sages, the equivalent of the Queen’s presidential cabinet, rule through fear, doctrine and chemical manipulation. The drones are useless braggarts beyond their breeding potential, consuming the bulk of the resources and contributing little. The nurses are snobs, viewing all but the queen as inferior to them. Security bees enforce the strict demands of the caste system through fear and violence. The foragers are the adventurers, not happy unless they are on the wing in search of new food sources. Sanitation workers are slaves, their development process interfered with in an effort to make sure they can’t talk, only work.
Flora is born into this at a time of great upheaval in the hive. Urbanization, pesticides, non-native species, wasps, spiders and more keep the hive on the precarious edge between survival and desolation. Flora herself keeps finding that she, unlike most bees, has multiple talents, including the ability to reproduce. That singular ability is, by divine right, that only of the queen, and should the Sages unveil Flora’s egg-laying talents, she will be killed. However, in the end, Flora’s fertility may be the only thing that can save the hive, if it’s not too late.
I don’t, by any means, think my little screed here has done Paull’s work justice. I can’t recommend it enough, and judging from the buzz, I’m not the only one.