The Bees by Laline Paull; book review

 

The 1980 time-travel romance film Somewhere in Time stars Christopher Reeve as a theatre director who falls in love with the portrait of a long-dead Jane Seymour. Reeve hypnotises himself back to 1912 and into Jane's initially standoffish arms, but as a method of time travel, self-hypnosis proves to be a flimsy vehicle: the appearance of a single coin from his time breaks the spell, bringing Reeve back to the real world.

This moment occurred to me too often as I read the opening chapters of Laline Paull's ambitious but erratic debut, The Bees. Although the novel opens in a recognisably human world, the narrative swiftly turns to centre on Flora 717, a sanitation bee who, though programmed to "accept, obey, serve", begins to confront the orthodoxy of the hive. For the most part, Paull's alien world of bees is made concrete and tangible; it convinces - but then a sentence will crop up, a phrase and, like Reeve's coin, the imaginative spell is broken.

The hive in the early pages is described with a certain amount of realism. Yes, the bees talk, but it feels authentic. However, on page 8, bees hold "platters of pastries and pitchers of nectared water". It's an image so out of place with what Paull has thus far created; it needles the fictional bubble she has credibly built. For pages, all I could think about was how beeswould go about making pastry, and what kinds of machinery would be necessary to produce such small pitchers and platters.

This wayward anthropomorphism continues throughout the first half of the novel: we are presented with a world which clearly has a solid grounding in entomological fact, except at odd times when bees open doors, eat in canteens, or adjust neckwear. It's a confusing narrative tic, exacerbated by similar lapses in plotting and character. Unexpected changes of behaviour and unexplained accidents, such as Flora gaining entry to places she should not be allowed, stud the first half, buffeting Flora towards the correct narrative path. It is frustratingly episodic - and at odds with the second half, which buzzes with purpose, suspense and energy. Paull's grasp of pace and character flies once Flora's mission to save the hive becomes clearer. In a succession of scenes of skill, intelligence and vitality, the publisher's hope of a Watership Down for the Hunger Games generation seems tantalisingly close. Had the action started closer to this middle section, The Bees might have been exactly that. Instead, it is a novel of great promise and innovation, hidebound by small yet crucial missteps.

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