Laline Paull's debut novel The bees has been hailed as "Watership Down for The Hunger Games' generation". Actually that's not a bad analogy, as it's one of the best novels I've ever read that's got inside an animal's head. Bees are not as naturally cuddly as rabbits, but this is an astounding novel - part science fiction, part fable, part nature mockumentary, wholly engrossing and extraordinary. I would have never thought that 350 pages about a hive of honey bees would have held me captivated, but that's exactly what this novel did.

Flora 717 is a lowly sanitation bee, clumsy and rather lacking in the usual apian social graces, Flora moves through the ranks quickly despite her status at the bottom end of hive society. As she moves through her short (by human standards) life, we see the changes that come upon the hive, part natural, part man-made; set against this background Flora has a terrible secret that she will do anything to hide, it may lead to her death, but it may also herald the future for her hive.

This is one of those novels that it's horribly hard to convey quite how good it is. The subject matter isn't necessarily something that would draw the average reader in; but it's stunningly well written, compelling reading, that can be read on so many levels. Whether it's as a parallel with the levels and prejudices of human society; or as a plea for more consciousness of the importance and fragility of the natural world. I've always been a fan of bees, but this novel left me aware of how little I really knew about them, and what wondrous creatures they are. Is it a dystopian novel? A novel about hierarchical repressive societies, or is it about the irrepressible spirit that can arise in even the darkest times?

Bee-keepers have been slightly more ambivalent about the novel, not unsurprisingly they spot its flaws rather more easily than the rest of us "civilians," but where there seems to be unanimous support is in the power of Paull's story-telling and, her horror at the general worldwide decline of these most important of insects.

I don't think I'll ever look at a honey-bee in quite the same way again. The Bees is one of those novels that is truly mind-expanding. Amazing.


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