Friday, September 26, 2014

422 (2014 #50). The Bees

by Laline Paull,
performed by Orlagh Cassidy

This is an incredible book.  It anthropomorphizes bees and their life in the hive, making the bees' devotion to their queen analogous to a religion, with cult-like behavior, control by the "Hive Mind," and "Accept, Obey, and Serve" the motto of every worker.

Like a real hive, this one also has a caste system, but it's not quite so rigid.  Flora 717, born an ugly, deformed sanitation worker, somehow has the ability to communicate and to make royal jelly (called Flow in the book).  She is saved from death by a higher-caste priestess bee (a Sage of the Melissae - I loved the way the different castes were named for different types of flowers--and in this case the flower name is a wonderful pun--and knew from reading The Secret Life of Bees that Melissae means "bees" in Greek).

There are also some parallels with Catholicism.  The worker bees (all female) refer to each other as "Sister [flower/caste]," and the pheromone the queen bee uses to control fertility in the workers is described in terms of incense.  The prayer workers recite is a variation on the Catholic "Hail Mary" ("Our Mother, who art in labor, Hallowed be Thy womb; Thy marriage done, They Queendom come...").  There is a daily sacrament of Devotion (more of the queen's pherormenes), except for the queen's ladies-in-waiting, who maintain the "Stories of Scent," much like the mysteries of the Rosary.

The reader gets to explore the many different roles of worker bees, as Flora moves from being a nurse to helping to kill a wasp invader (earning some time with the queen) to foraging for food, due to a shortage of workers.  She encounters perils both natural (the Myriad:  wasps - the Vespa, their Latin genus name, as well as birds and spiders; and a carnivorous plant) and man-made (a cell-phone tower, and the effects of pesticides and human intervention in man-made hives).  She serves the drones, the useless male bees, and encounters them on a foraging flight in a congregation area.

Much, much more happens in the book, as it covers a good year of the life of a hive, but you'll just have to read it.  Flora begins to lay eggs, and "only the queen may breed."

This is Laline Paull's first novel.  She began to research bees when a young beekeeper friend died, and was fascinated by the parallels with human society.  When she learned about the unusual laying worker bee, she had the idea for the book, and rushed to write about it before anyone else did.  After reading her book, I too am inspired to learn more about bees - she even suggests some books in a recent interview.  Paull is the daughter of immigrants from India, and confirms in that same interview that the Dalits of India, the untouchables, were "one of the influences in this work" for lowest-caste sanitation worker Flora.

The audiobook case for The Bees says it is "performed by Orlagh Cassidy," and that is completely true.  The actress does a fantastic job creating believable voices for a myriad of characters, with the wasps and spiders sounding particularly evil.

I definitely recommend this book, especially to book clubs.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

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