The Irish novelist Soinbhe Lally is well-known in her own land, but A Hive for the Honeybee is her first book to be published in the United States. Let us hope it is not her last. A Hollywood producer probably would describe this unique little book as Charlotte's Web meets Animal Farm. It has the charm and melancholy of the former, with the animal characters remaining primarily within their creaturely natures, and the caustic satire of the latter. The combination, expressed in a prose distilled almost to poetry, makes for a strange and wonderful reading experience.
Lally's creatures are never cute or endearing. Indeed, the rigid caste system and code of behavior imposed by the social hierarchy, while satirizing pomposity with Swiftian glee, still retains some of the mindless horror that is part of our fascination with instinctive creatures. Lally never flinches in the face of nature's most disturbing and heartless demands. Many bees die in this book some of them during a civil uprising, others simply because bees hatch and grow old in the space of a season.
The story is framed by one summer in the life of a hive. It follows the lives and changing opinions of two worker bees, Thora and Belle, and two drones, Alfred and Mo. Lally's bees may have spiritual and even artistic yearnings, but they remain in character as bees. They discuss the future of the hive's society not over tea, but while emptying their pollen sacks or grooming each other's antennae. Social issues derive entirely from the natural history of bees.
Against the traditions of his shiftless, literal-minded caste, Alfred is a poet. The text is enlivened with excellent poetry by this talented insect, including an expression toward the end of the very theme of the book which is that the brevity of our time on this beautiful earth makes life all the more sweet.