A novel set inside a bee colony has been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction – with judges calling it “an Animal Farm for the 21st century”.
The Bees is the first novel by Laline Paull, a playwright and screenwriter. She was inspired to write the dystopian fantasy by the death from breast cancer of her friend Angie Biltcliffe, who kept bees.
“She introduced me to the bees, which she called ‘her girls’,” Paull told The Independent last night. “Bees became a very powerful emotional token for me. Reading about them was something to hold on to in the initial aftermath of losing her.”
Paull’s thriller tells the story of Flora 717, a bee who rebels against the hive’s constrictive society. The book was recently longlisted for the Desmond Elliott prize, which celebrates debut novels.
In researching the novel, Paull said she spent three months reading everything she could find on the insects, from beekeeping manuals to collections of essays and poetry. “They fascinated me and I started to see stories and characters,” she said.
Shami Chakrabarti, chair of the judges for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize – previously known as the Orange Prize – said: “The bees are so real. This could be like an Animal Farm for the 21st century. What a great way to critique society, power and hierarchy. Dystopian sci-fi has always been able to do this.”
The novel has even won the respect of the beekeeping community, impressed by her accurate depiction of the secret world of the hive. “Beekeepers do contact me and most of them really like it,” Paull said. “I have done my homework.” Paull has written a series of plays including Boat Memory, about Charles Darwin, and the farce Show and Tell, both for the National Theatre. There has been interest in possible adaptations of The Bees, and the author is working on her second novel.
How to be Both by Ali Smith is also on the shortlist after it was also nominated for the Booker Prize and won the Costa best novel.
The bookies have installed it as second favourite behind Sarah Waters, the Tipping the Velvet author, who is up for The Paying Guests.
Rachel Cusk’s Outline and Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone are on the shortlist, while the one nominee from outside the UK is from American author Anne Tyler for A Spool of Blue Thread.
The contenders - The Independent’s view
‘Outline’: Rachel Cusk Her eighth novel is a compelling study of invisibility and silence.
‘The Bees’: Laline Paull It is a novel of great promise and innovation, hidebound by small yet crucial missteps.
‘A God in Every Stone’: Kamila Shamsie She is adept at excavating the past and braids the personal and political to great effect… The end result is both complex and spell-binding.
‘How to be Both’: Ali Smith She mischievously remodels the novel with both brazen ambition and subtlety.
‘A Spool of Blue Thread’: Anne Tyler This is a glorious unsentimental treat for her loyal and attentive readers.
‘The Paying Guests’: Sarah Waters She does give us a poignant love story … yet we find ourselves wishing for just a few more fireworks.
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