The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for fear of breaking the rules

Laline Paull's The Bees reminds us that there may be times when breaking the rules is necessary for our own, or others', survival

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Ailment: Fear of breaking the rules

Cure: The Bees by Laline Paull

Most of us are conditioned from early childhood to follow the rules. And quite right, too – for society can't function in a state of anarchy. But what if the rules in question are not worth following? What if the rules do not have our – or others' – best interests at heart? Reading The Bees, Laline Paull's extraordinary imagining of life inside a beehive, reminds us that there may be times when breaking the rules is necessary for our own, or others', survival. After all, it's always been the rule-breakers who have changed society for the better.

As soon as she emerges from her wax cell in the hive's Arrivals Hall, Flora instinctively understands what she is: a worker bee, "Flora 717", whose job it is to clean and sanitise the hive. Programmed by pheromones, scents and vibrations, at one with the "hive mind", she knows it's her mission in life to "Accept, Obey, and Serve" – a chant that comes from her mouth, unbidden. But when, moments after her birth, she watches another new-born bee with a damaged wing having her neck snapped – for variations are a threat to the hive – she feels a looming terror. She is bigger than other Sanitation bees, with an unusually long tongue. Must she, too, be killed?

Sister Sage, a powerful priestess, suspects that Flora's irregularities might make her useful, and bends the rules to spare her. Flora proves her right – producing more Royal Jelly, or "Flow", to feed the Queen's larva-babies than any other bee; and killing an enormous wasp that invades the hive. But when she discovers herself capable of something only the Queen is allowed to do, she is tempted to break the biggest rule of all. Will her transgression put all the bees in danger – or be to the hive's advantage? As The Bees suggests, those who follow the rules may get on with others; but those who break them may lead them to better things.

'The Novel Cure' by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin is published in paperback on 3 September by Canongate at £9.99