Book review: The Music of Bees by Eileen Garvin

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

People like, no, NEED to feel grounded and connected.

Without that sense that we belong somewhere, to someone or to a particular time and place, we feel lost and unmoored, a debilitating condition that sends life into an agonisingly enervating limbo.

Eileen Garvin explores exactly how this feels, with tenderness, empathy and an incisively understanding eyes, in her mesmeringly poetic book The Music of Bees, which takes readers to the Pacific Northwest of the United States where three disparate people are struggling to find their way back to some sort of functioning place in life.

It is not easy, and while there is warmth, good humour, and whimsicality in the story, Garvin doesn’t pretend for one moment that the journey back to existential wholeness is an easy one.

It does help however if you are not alone when you’re making the arduous trek back to something, sort of, kind of, approaching normal and it’s here that The Music of Bees really shines and comes sparklingly and reassuringly alive.

This wondrously uplifting novel, which is also resolutely honest about the dark places in which we all find ourselves, brings together a widowed middle-aged beekeeper named Alice Holtzman, a paraplegic mohawk-wearing young man named Jake with a gift for hearing the music of bees (hence the title) and a 24-year-old ex-con named Harry who is in search of new beginnings after a bleakly dispiriting past.

“Alice jumped in the truck and sped up the road into the blinding lights of the setting sun. Being in motion helped calm her. Somehow being in the truck with the windows rolled down and the wind in her ears made it easier to hold her grief within the confines of her body. Otherwise she might have split in two.” (P. 141)

These three uniquely-wrought characters come together in the most unexpected of ways.

Well, at least Alice and Jake do; Harry, responding to a job advert for work on Alice’s small allotment out of the town of Hood River in Oregon, arrives rather more conventionally but with no less an impact on him or on the people he comes to call friends and then family.

Alice and Jake meet one night at sunset when the part-time beekeeper who holds down an unfulfilling day time at the local country office, clips the side of Jake’s wheelchair which, it should be noted, is flying down the road in contravention of all kinds of rules.

Nevertheless, Alice is understandably concerned for Jake’s wellbeing and her initial attempts to see to him and get him home to his parents, where he feels displaced and unwelcome (by his father at least), soon morph into Jake living with her where he shows a prodigious gift for beekeeping.

It is this unexpectedly uncovered gift, along with Alice’s unlikely friendship that transforms Jake’s life which is in disarray following the accident that put him in a wheelchair, and which send all his carefully laid plans for scholarship-sponsored musical study at college well and truly on the backburner.

Eileen Garvin (image courtesy Hachette Australia)

But, of course, redemptive friendships often work both ways and just as Alice unwittingly helps save Jake, he saves her right back in return, with their budding working relationship, and the arrival of Harry too, reminding a grief-stricken Alice, who is mourning the recent loss of her husband so profoundly that life has lost all of its light and colour, its flavour and its hope.

Hers is a shell of an existence but as she, Jake and Harry draw closer, despite their age differences and wholly divergent life experiences, it becomes clear that perhaps life is done with her, or any of them for that matter, yet and that maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel that is not the proverbial oncoming train.

Bolstering this remarkable story of healing and unlikely found families is a major narrative thread which sees the bees under threat by the arrival of an aggressively marketed new product which has the real capacity to poison the environment of Hood River and surrounding areas.

It’s not simply a livelihood that’s under threat; it’s the bonds that have united three broken and lost souls and a future that none of them expected but which they all need more desperately than any dare admit.

While The Music of Bees may seem like one of those charming stories of healing and hope that are increasingly popular in our current blighted age, and to be fair it most assuredly is, there is a muscularity to its storytelling that adds a deeply affecting emotional resonance to the story.

“This feeling had been growing in him, and he finally remembered what it was. he’d felt it the first day he woke up with Cheney in his room. He felt it when his mother bought him his first skateboard and when Noah had showed up to help him at Alice’s with no questions. And now with the bees. That feeling was just love. It was just everything. He held that knowledge in his heart, and he didn’t speak.” (P. 190)

Much of that comes from Alice who is the the emotional backbone of The Music of Bees.

Garvin explores her loss and grief with an empathetic understanding that makes it clear Alice is in no position to just have a flick switched and have everything return to normal; which is why the arrival of Jake and Harry, and the changes they bring, are all the more remarkable because there is magical waving of the wand going on here.

These people, especially Alice, are in real pain, suffering real loss and dislocation and so they’re coming together while richly rewarding and lifechanging is hard earned and real, the kind of development that doesn’t come about simply on the basis of a heartwarming narrative whim.

Yes, they are all the better for becoming part of a surprise found family but their path to some kind of happy ever after isn’t easy, it is simple and while they support each other unconditionally, that doesn’t simply magic away all the tough times and obstacles that still lie in their path.

That’s likely why the trajectory of The Music of Bees feel it is real and true because while these people do find redemption, hope and love with each other, the existence of their familial bonds doesn’t fix everything overnight.

Garvin balances the brutal bleakness of life with the promise of what may come, and what is needed to happen and just might now these three have found each other, imbuing The Music of Bees with the kind of verdant hope we all need when we feel lost and alone, as if life has no place for us.

It turns out it does, and as Alice, Jake and Harry, all of whom will find a firm and enduring place in your hearts, journey towards a place of renewed purpose and belonging, with a few messy and trying deviations along the way, it becomes abundantly, reassuringly clear, that the worst is not always the ending and perhaps the best, against all apparent odds, is waiting just around the corner.

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