Flora 717 knows her place. As a sanitation worker bee she is bottom of the heap inside her rigidly hierarchical world. But she is both happy and proud to be playing her allotted part in the smooth running of a society in which “Accept, Obey, Serve” provide both voluntary guidelines and the brutally enforced law. Inside the hive individual thoughts are dangerous. Obedience is absolute and self-sacrifice for the common good, the norm. Each member knows their place and finds reassurance within its parameters, however harsh.
The Bees, Laline Paull’s debut novel, was described by Publishers Weekly as “Animal Farm for the Hunger Games generation” and “dystopia meets Discovery Channel”. It is on the shortlist for the Baileys Womens Prize for Fiction, the winner of which will be announced on 3rd June.
Of course, it would be a dull old literary hive if all were to progress without incident. One day Flora 717’s potential is noted by one of the Sage priestess caste, though more as an experiment than mentoring. Given the opportunity and a sudden flutter of bravery she manages to do the seemingly impossible and rise from her class to become a forager supplying the hive with food.
Paull’s hive is no calm, genteel civilisation. There is nothing gentle or sisterly about the matriarchal society that rules with unblinking brutality. There is danger both within its labyrinthine interior and in the world outside with intrigue at every turn. And when contagion spreads illness and death among the new brood, no one, not even the beloved Queen is safe. Flora 717 is an inspiring heroine, surprising herself as she fulfils her own potential until eventually, driven by an overpowering of mother love, she finds herself facing the unthinkable. The detail is fascinating – in particular I loved the Dance Hall where the bees pass on information through the intricate patterns they trace out – and whilst I’m no apiologist (i just know to give them a wide berth), it rings true.
Paull is up against some stiff opposition in the Baileys Prize this year with Ali Smith (How to be Both), Sarah Waters (The Paying Guest), Rachel Cusk (Outline), Kamila Shamsee (A God in Every Shore) and Anne Tyler (A Spool of Blue Thread). Unfortunately, my guess is she won’t win, but she earned her place and has given readers an original and absorbing book.
The Bees by Laline Paull is published by HarperCollins.