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Review: The Bees, Laline Paull

the beesFlora 717 is a worker bee, designed to be a silent sanitation worker who simply picks up after her betters. But Flora can talk in a way that her sisters can’t, so despite the fact that she is an ugly, large brown bee, completely unlike her black-and-yellow striped siblings, she experiences life outside that of the other floras. She spends time feeding the baby bees and even goes foraging. But after a few days pass, and Flora meets the queen, she realizes she has a secret, and she can no longer follow the bees’ mantra: Accept. Obey. Serve. Instead, she has to think for herself and fight for what’s forbidden at all costs.

This is an utterly unusual book. I picked it up as a review copy from Amazon Vine and, typically for me, didn’t actually read the description in any great detail. I just saw “The Hunger Games meets The Handmaid’s Tale” in the description and thought that this would be a book well worth my time, should that actually hold true. And, as it turned out, a book called The Bees is genuinely about bees. Funny, that – I mention it because it colored my experience of the book, especially at the beginning, and because it highlights that this is unusual. The back of the book itself actually also mentions Watership Down, which is probably a more apt comparison, at least as far as non-human subjects go. I can kind of see why they’ve compared it to those books, but it’s not really like them at all, and I can see how someone who was misdirected, who might be like me and not very fond of reading book descriptions, might not actually end up liking the book much.

Anyway, I digress. This was extremely engaging and extremely unusual. Laline Paull has taken the lifecycle of bees, something is generally taught in school and ignored afterwards, and turned it into a compelling story about differing from and defying the norm. Flora isn’t meant to be what she is. Other bees tell her that she’s too big, that she’s too ugly, that they dislike the privilege she appears to have been given, just due to the fact that she has talents outside her social class. They look down on her and every day she fights to be herself and to keep her own secrets from the world. She fights harder than the other bees because she’s different and because she feels she has to earn her privilege, which really made me root for her.

I’ll admit that I know next to nothing about bees, so I have genuinely no idea how “right” the author gets the way things actually work, but given that the bees tend to use dustpans and brushes and curtsey to each other, I don’t think she’s going for realism. It seems more to be a story about sticking to your own principles and doing what you feel is right, no matter who looks down on you or disdains you for it. But at the same time, by humanising these bees, she does highlight how little they fit in the modern world, and how little we understand or know about them.

The Bees‘s cover also says it’s “An extraordinary feat of imagination” and I think I’d agree with that. I certainly never thought about what it would be like in a beehive, but I appreciated the perspective and I liked the story. I’d recommend it if you’re looking for something different.

All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

4 comments to Review: The Bees, Laline Paull

  • I’ve recently been to a talk about bees and become really interested in them. I often enjoy books with an animal protagonist so it sounds as though this might be for me….although I might get annoyed about them behaving in an unrealistic manner. Dustpans and brushes?!! Thanks for bringing this book to my attention!
    Jackie (Farm Lane Books)´s last post …Books in Brief: The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Idiopathy and Feeding the Ghosts

  • How fascinating! I am still not sure what to think of this book, but it sounds like the author did a good job of bringing her story to life.
    Literary Feline´s last post …Where Is Your Bookmark? (04/29/2014)

  • I reviewed this for an audiobook magazine and was really drawn in to the story. Flora and the life in the hive as imagined by Paull were so compelling that the over-the-top anthropomorphizing didn’t particularly bother me.
    Beth F´s last post …Wordless Wednesday 287

  • Jennifer

    Just read it and I loved it. Through her writing I got a sense of the intoxication of ‘the hive mind. She managed to make living in a bee hive, foraging for nectar and pollen and a world where the predominant sense is smell, something to envy of bees. I always had a sense of the tension between ‘the social contract’ expected of all social animals in order to ensure survival and the importance of the individual and their ‘mutations’ to allow the group to adapt in order to survive changing conditions. If any of you are acquainted with Star Trek Voyager, it reminded me of a more benign story about the Bork. And Flora 717 as a character was completely engaging. She was kind at times, ruthless at others, obedient to the hive and then subversive at others, all the while loving the hive and the queen and telling herself that everything she did was for the good of the hive and the queen, or nearly everything.
    The names Paull gave to the other bees, the stages of hive life and other insects and animals encountered were fantastic and helped to conjure up rich visual images in my mind as I read. I rarely got the sense that I couldn’t visualise the story, that it was simply words in the page with no form. I believe there was only one time where I had difficulty summoning images in response to the storyline and I had to put the book down and do a bit of cursory research on bees to draw a connection.
    All up I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who is looking for an adventure story with a twist. A great imaginative read.