Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Books with Friends – The Bees, by Laline Paull, reviewed by Jess Kershaw

Today, a guest review by my oldest friend, Jess Kershaw. We’ve known each other since we were five-year-olds running round the playground writing books in our heads. And now, I’ll hand over to Jess:

Katie laid down two rules for me when I said I wanted to write a review for her (wonderful) blog: that I follow the same format that she did, and that I didn't swear.

The latter is pretty hard for me. I like to swear. I use effers and blinders as punctuation -- a well-placed curse word does the impact of a dozen exclamation points, with the added bonus of not making you look like a lunatic on the internet.

But I love Katie, and more than that, I am in love with a book -- so I am quite happy to mind my tongue, and try and squash my rambling writing style into a format that makes sense.

This is the first book review I have written since I was ten, and we had to write book reviews to prove that we had, in fact, read the books we said we had. I had a tendency to scrawl down a couple of sentences of 'yeah it was okay' -- the written, prepubescent version of a shrug and a 'meh' -- and anyway, this all has a point, and the point is this: without variation, these books were on animals.

Katie, in her infinite kindness, described me as 'a bit eccentric'. I was mental. Even more mental than now, and that's saying something -- we're talking about a girl who knew more about birds than most adults, a girl who would daydream about being a sled-dog, a girl who gained minor infamy for inventing the wonderful game of 'Wandering Albatrosses' -- a game that entailed running around with stretched-out arms and pretending to hatch eggs on playground benches.

So, of course, I devoured all the books on animals I could find -- White Fang to Watership down, Silverwing to Animal Farm (I'll admit; first time round of that book the complex political allegory soared straight over my head; I just finished it feeling that pigs are bastards.) And, thus, I consider myself somewhat of an expert on animal fiction.

I should specify: a particular sort of animal fiction. The sort that features the animal as the central character. The sort that lets the reader climb inside the skull of an alien creature -- for animals are alien, with ways of seeing the world that are utterly beyond our own realm of thought. The best sort of books -- White Fang for wolves; Silverwing for bats -- created animals that were more than just people dressed up in fursuits. They made characters that were complex, challenging and engaging; they created a culture that you could crawl inside.

And now we get to the book that I'm reviewing! Jesus above, that took a while didn't it?

But then again, this book requires a little bit of build-up. It's called The Bees by Laline Paull. and I was given a copy by my step-dad who rightly guessed that I would like quirky novels about insects.
Oh, and before we get to the meat of the review I just have to spare a word of praise for whatever genius designed the cover. Seriously. It's a masterpiece of marketing: matt, honeycombed with gold gilt, and a single bee perched in the centre. It's danger-yellow, and snatches at the eye -- I work at a publishers, and made the mistake of leaving the book out. My boss took it, cooed over the cover, and wouldn't stop touching it.

Anyway.

The Bees is, rightly speaking, a thriller. It features a totalitarian society ruled by an all-powerful caste of corrupt priestesses; the characters are policed by eugenicist police that make the KGB look like a cuddly bunch of kittens; deformity is a sin, and punishable by the Kindness -- a wonderfully euphemistic term for being stung to death -- and, ruling over all of this, is the benevolent Holy Mother, the God-Queen of the Hive --

Ah yes. As the title may have suggested, all the characters are bees.

It's bizarre. But it works, and it works so well that I'm amazed that more people haven't done it. But then again, it takes a special kind of skill to pull off such a bold leap into speculative fiction, and I have no doubt that in the hands of a lesser writer this story would be nothing but sludge.
But it isn't. It is in the capable -- possibly clawed; I'm not entirely convinced that she isn't made of bees -- hands of Paull. She has a knack of adding enough humanity to the hive to make it understandable, but taking away enough of what we recognise to create an intriguingly xeno culture. The best example of this is Flora 717, the heroine of our tale. She's Katniss Everdeen with stripes -- born into the lowest caste of society, working her way up through her nobility and self-sacrifice, and eventually sparking a revolution.

I don't want to give too much away -- part of the beauty of this book is being able to discover the twists and turns of a hive falling apart.

The other beauty in this book is the writing. It is joyfully old-fashioned. It reads like Rudyard Kipling. I must admit, it takes a little settling into -- the author is lavish with her descriptions, but she has a tendency to repeat words (totally understandable: there are only so many ways one can say 'scent) and for a few pages it jarred me a little. However, you soon become accustomed to the style -- and you realise that it is integral to the story. By giving the priestesses the vocabulary of nineteenth century ministers, she creates a link between them and us, using the language of religious extremism that we all know far too well. The language of the bees feels both very close to home, and very far away.

And that is her genius -- the delicate balance between the fantastical and the strangely relatable; the fear of a spider and the eternal love a mother has for her child; the joy of sisterhood and the pain of loss.

And that brings us to my last point. The cover proudly declares that this book was nominated for the Women's Fiction awards. I was puzzled by this initially: it's about bees. What's that got to do with women?

But then I read it, and I understood. This is very much a female book. Every main character is female. The only males are the tiresome, greedy drones -- and anyone who knows anything about bees and the winter will know what happens to them -- and the noble Sir Lindon, whose function can best be described as 'love interest' (insofar as one can have a love interest in a book about bees).

The females come in every sort and rank; fanatics and police, brave nurses -- my second favourite characters are the noble Teasel nurses, for reasons that will become clear when you read the book -- revolutionaries and reactionaries. And, yes, they aren't human -- but it is wonderful to read about some kickarse girls.

In short: I love this book. And after I read it, I looked out of the window and if there was any poetry in my life a bee would have buzzed on by -- but it's winter, and far too cold, but I can't help but imagine a hive huddled into a cluster for warmth, dreaming of spring and new flowers.

Greatest strength: The alien, dystopian world of bee culture that sucks you into the depths of its honeycomb

Greatest weakness: I’m feeling a bizarre kinship with bees which probably isn’t entirely healthy. On a more serious note, if you dislike novels that are intricate and beautiful in their strangeness, avoid this. Read some Mills and Boon. Be boring.

Let’s end on a quote: ‘Desperate to prove her worth, Flora began her descent towards a million tiny golden mouths. each showed a faint ultraviolet line pointing to its well of sweetness.’

There is something wonderfully intimate, almost erotic, about the description of the relationship between bees and flowers; in the interests of trying to keep this sprawling review short I’ve picked one of my favourite descriptions.


Katie's reviews that may interest you:           
           
          

          
         

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