My friend Gill bought me this book for my birthday, Gill is a beekeeper – so this was a particularly appropriate gift from her.
Telling the Bees is Peggy Hesketh’s first novel – set in a quiet suburb of California. I have no idea why I had expected a British set novel – not realising the author is American. That is beside the point, this is a novel about the mysteries of life and death, and the fascinating world of the hive. As a first novel it is excellent, very well written, I adored the voice of the central character, and the author’s knowledge of bee culture is phenomenal.
“The bees travel along the high-tension wires, just as surely as one true sentence follows the next. I am not sure why the bees took to this peculiar mode of travel, but I suspect they have their reasons, and their reasons have everything to do with the Bee Ladies’ murder”
Albert Honig is an Octogenarian bee-keeper, still living in the house in which he grew up, where he and his father had once carefully tended their bee hives together on the land behind their house. Never having married, Albert has lived his whole life passionately dedicated to and fascinated by his bees. Now Albert has something like sixteen hives, making a modest living selling his honey and bee products to local retailers.
Next door live sisters Hilda and Claire Straussman, locally nicknamed The Bee Ladies’, also beekeepers, they have slightly fewer hives than Albert. Claire and Hilda are living in the house they grew up in, they had been friends with Albert since childhood. One morning his bees’ behaviour indicates that something is wrong, his neighbours house seems suspiciously quiet. An argument years earlier has resulted in Albert not having visited his former friends for over a decade, but nevertheless Albert goes to investigate, making his way into the house which was once so familiar to him. Inside, Albert finds the bodies of his two elderly neighbours, and along with the horror of his discovery poor Albert is swamped by sadness and nostalgia for the past they shared.
In the wake of the sisters’ suspicious deaths, Albert is visited by Detective Grayson, a sensible, world weary policeman not far from retirement. Albert can’t stop himself from initiating Grayson into the complex world of his bees whenever possible. The simplest of questions from the detective results in Albert going off on a tangent, everything in his world leads back to the bees. Albert’s way of answering is frustrating; Grayson finds himself listening to complex pieces of bee lore as he gently questions his elderly witness. It would appear the sisters were the victims of a burglary gone horribly wrong, but naturally the police need to thoroughly investigate the case, which includes knowing something about the unfortunate victims. Grayson has questions about the sisters only Albert can answer, photographs taken from the house of people he hopes Albert will be able to identify. Albert feeds Grayson his honey, and over the weeks and months of the ensuing investigation, the detective learns more about the lives of these three elderly friends who never got the chance to make up their differences.
The narrative goes back and forth in time, and gradually we begin to understand a little more about the relationship between these two families.
Claire and Hilda’s mother – had been a huge and terrifying figure, who the other kids from school wouldn’t dare approach. There were vague rumours about a younger brother who had died as a toddler, and the family keep themselves to themselves. Albert’s mother makes an effort to reach out to the girls – inviting them to tea, invitations which are ignored for ages.
Eventually Claire – the more sociable of the two begins to come over to the Honig house, drawn into the magical, mysterious world of the hive.
“…Claire was gently convinced by my mother that with proper precautions, a contented hive of industrious honeybees was no more dangerous than a mewling basket of newborn kittens.
‘Just remember to walk slowly and deliberately when you approach the hives, and don’t make any sudden noise or movements,’ my mother admonished as Claire allowed the comforting drone of our precious honeybees to envelop her at last.”
As a girl Hilda, less attractive than her sister, had been strangely silent, rarely speaking, and never showing the least interest in bees, unlike Claire, who quickly developed a fascination, rivalling that of Albert. Albert watches the comings and goings of his neighbours, his shyness preventing him speaking honestly to Claire – who at this time was his particular friend and companion.
In time the truths of the past and present come together, revealing secrets and the truth of what happened to The Bee Ladies.
In prose at times richly poetic, Peggy Hesketh has written a compelling novel which will delight fans of the humble honeybee.