Have just put this book down and am feeling nonplussed. On the one hand, was generally overjoyed at having finished all six of the 2015 shortlisted Baileys’s Prize picks inside the deadline; on the other am loath not to be able to wax lyrical and ooze molten honeyed comments about this final contender.
The buzz around it, forgive the pun, couldn’t be much louder : it’s the only novel on the list from a début author, and the hype on the vibrant also honeycombed jacket cover is dripping with promise : “Gripping” (Margaret Atwood), “Frightening” (The Guardian), “Ambitious, propulsive, addictive, astonishing” (New York Times). Yet, despite so much hyperbole, it takes quite a little while to ease into this brave new world, where there is more violence, murder and mayhem going on than in “Child 44” – and that’s saying something.
I confess I found it a very odd read. It portrays a kind of dystopian world where bees take on human qualities (“Flora forced a smile… Lily 500 looked at her intently… Flora was about to answer, then held her tongue. She nodded and grunted… She would not weep, she would work”), and you can’t help but visualize the protagonist like a Disney cartoon character with her ‘superhuman’ antennae bobbing around and her strong stick limbs courageously dusting her wings down all the way through the story. Anthropomorphism move over, for Flora 717 the survivor can not only play it, she can hum it…
I can’t really put my finger on what I found so difficult to read and as you know, am ever averse to negative reviewing in general. So I suspect that it is me, myself, I who has failed to capture the essence of the idea. Or more precisely to be enthralled by it. As “The Handmaid’s Tale” is one of my Top Starring All Time Favourites Ever, I had been hoping to agree with Margaret Atwood’s glowing comment via Twitter of “(A) gripping Cinderella/Arthurian tale with lush Keatsian adjectives“. ‘Hmmm’. Yet whereas former prizewinner of “The Song of Achilles”, Madeline Miller, commented that “with every page I turned, I found myself drawn deeper into Flora’s plight and her immersive, mesmerizing world”, I am genuinely sorry to say that I felt the opposite – I never engaged with the protagonist, her pickle, or even the style and language employed to describe this survival of the fittest environment. Voilà, I have confessed, and were I to inhabit Sister Sage the priestess’s and Sir Linden the drone’s world I would now be torn limb from limb, and the foragers and the sanitation crew would collectively “clean the crumbs of propolis” off my fur and chuck me on top of the growing mound in the morgue. And deservedly so, for of the 325 reviews currently showing on Amazon.com, 175 show a five star rating so fully warrant having more than my wings clipped.
Hey, though, far better to be a female and risk having your treacherous neck twisted around till you are no more – much more perilous to be a male species with a Queen Bee around – it may be one thing to “Accept. Obey. Serve”, but alack aloe to being one of her hapless boyfriends : accompanying the tribal cry of “She is mated!” we read with nothing short of a wince that “as a cordon of flora ladies-in-waiting rose up to escort their princess back down to the safety of the swarm, his organ was hanging as proof from her body”. Off with their heads takes on a whole new meaning.
Read in May 2015.
Rating : really sorry, but 5/10 – please comment if you disagree, am disconcerted and at a bit of a loss – having a bit of a flap, as it were…
UPDATE 10th June – a second opinion from Literary Ramblings etc follower Mr P, added with thanks and appreciation :
I thought I’d better read this work as I’d heard two conflicting reviews which were equally energetic in their opinion. When I started, I was in the ‘No’ camp for several chapters… bizarre, rather dry prose and certainly characterless characters; and if I was to read the word ‘pulse’ just once more I think I might have thrown the book down with an irritable jerk. But then, just as the word ‘bizarre’ is alliteratively apt (or apistic?) for life in a bee hive, so I became ever so slightly mesmerised by the dry rustle of the prose, repetitively intoning the routines, rituals and ruptures of everyday life in the hive. In the background I’m dimly aware of the uniquely delicate ecosystem of Apis Mellifera, and know a beekeeper who is expertly devoted to the complex and mysterious lives they lead. They are at once the source of fright and the source of life. They are destroyed by man, who in doing so, is inanely destroying himself. Bees are so ancient and apparently primitive and yet we know so little about their mechanisms of life and can only wonder at the delicate subtlety of their organisation and society.
It is perhaps the beauty of subtlety which is missing from this book. Action is fast and furious and bloody thorax-ripping is common practice. However, the heroine remains woodenly uninteresting through the ravages of existence, no psychological nuance of any kind; the priestesses and others are equally two-dimensional and the feminist take on ‘their Malenesses’ is too dull for words. Maybe this is intentional? Maybe the primal nature of the bee makes them suitable only for a primitive analysis? I don’t know. In the end I was briefly entranced, but I’m afraid only briefly.
Mr P’s rating : 8/10
Shortlisted for the Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015