Friday, 30 January 2015

CBR7 1: The Bees, Laline Paull

Page count: 344, I read the UK paperback edition
Time taken: probably four hours

This book is really hard to summarise. It's a close third-person narrative about a honeybee, Flora 717. It's a classic hero(ine)'s journey. It's an investigation into the idea of free-will and determinism. It's a novel about upheaval in a rigid caste-based state, drawing from classic dystopian literature. It's a love story. It's a survival story. It's about the consequences of climate change in the insect world. It's a nuanced and sophisticated discussion about the nature of motherhood and family. It is all of these things, and none of them, because I don't think there has ever been another book like it, and it is on the sharp edge of art.

I picked this up because (1) I was in Waterstones for a diary in the post New Year sale and I always check to see if there are books because I read like it's a food-group or something (2) it was yellow and shiny which caught my eye, I am like a shallow cover-judging magpie that way and (3) I read the first couple of pages and was hooked. I read it in great gulps, totally absorbed in the narrative (which, given that I got Dragon Age Inquisition for Christmas and have sunk around 250 hours of play into it this month, should be understood to be a Huge Thing), and I loved it.

I'm sure there are flaws. Certainly, if you're not familiar with tropes of dystopian fiction you'll have a harder time with it (not that it is fully a dystopia, but it has elements), and if you don't like reading anything about alien forms of life then you'll almost certainly not get it at all, but there was nothing that I can point my finger to and say "this is a flaw" or "this bit did not work for me". Okay, I am a big giant nerd who likes to feel clever and be challenged, so realistically anything slightly pretentious and/or high-concept appeal to me a lot more than it should.

And it is high-concept. The narrative takes you into the mind of a worker bee, through the various different jobs she has, dealing with various different sisters and other insects. The detail is rich and complicated as the honey Flora 717 works to make, and the world-building is incredible. The bees are at once alien and familiar, which is rare to find even in high-SF. The book was clearly a labour of love on the part of the author, and I like bees a lot more than I did before I read it, which is a real achievement given that I am hardcore phobic of wasps. (In person. I am less bothered about wasps which are not able to get to me.)

This is a beautiful, compelling, deeply strange and triumphant novel, and I recommend it to everyone unless you are the type of phobic that gets bothered by descriptions of insects, spiders, and grubs, in which case, I apologise for using the title to make an Eddie Izzard reference instead of warning you, and kudos for making it to the end of the review. (Although actually Paull manages to make bee larvae cute, which is a note-worthy achievement in and of itself.)

Five stars: intoxicating as mead, without the hangover the next day.

(Cross-posted to the Cannonball Read page here)