(The review is in black type below, scroll down to avoid the rambling intro. REVIEW CONTAINS A SPOILER)
Around May 2010 or thereabouts, I began to read Like Bees To Honey by Caroline Smailes.
About 150 pages in (ok, to be precise, 162 pages in: the bookmark, a ticket for a gig by The Fall from the same month, was still there this week) I had to stop reading the book.
Not that I wanted to stop. It was just that in the glorious, sunny days in which I'd begun to read it, some seriously challenging events suddenly came my way and took up much time and energy, and were to continue to do so for some time. On the one hand this meant that I didn't have the concentration levels to adequately do justice to an activity such as reading a book. On the other hand, I didn't want to sully the book in question with the memory of the rather difficult circumstances in which I would have read it.
So I stopped, and apart from a different novel which I read late last year (and which I knew I'd get through quickly), I haven't read any fiction since. I decided that I'd start reading again whenever it felt right to do so.
In the meantime, Like Bees To Honey has been with me on at least two trips to Poland, two camping holidays in Wales, and several expeditions around the UK - just in case I felt the urge to read again.
Finally, this week, I opened its pages once more and, from the beginning (as opposed to page 162) I read it. It feels like now was definitely the right time to have done so.
Whether due to my age or certain life circumstances, I've been experiencing an acute sense of nostalgia in recent months. Nostalgia feels like a double-edged sword, there to be noted, understood, yet viewed with suspicion, not to be wallowed in. As mentioned previously, for me it is best summed up by the phrase
A vehement desire to return home.
If home, however, is not just in a different place but also in a different time (in my case, the 1970s/80s) then returning is an impossibility. To go back to that physical place now is a reminder that things have changed: progress and decay have simultaneously impacted on buildings, people, things in general. Static memories are placed in tension against the dynamic changes that everyday life brings as time inevitably passes.
I mention this because such questions of home, and more specifically of belonging, are central to Like Bees To Honey. So I'll stop rambling on about myself now, and talk about the book:
Caroline's previous novels, In Search Of Adam and Black Boxes were as dark and bleak as they were compelling. The main protagonists in each were defined by dysfunction, desperation and all-too-human frailty, the narratives weaving them together were often unflinchingly brutal, yet never less than readable - rather than be repelled, there was enough about these characters to sympathise with, to want everything to be alright for them.
Like Bees To Honey is much gentler by comparison. For the most part, bleakness is replaced by beauty, at least in terms of the main setting of the story, the island of Malta. Something it has in common with the two previous novels, however, is its deft and intimate portrayals of people, who are as convincingly flesh-and-blood as I've read on the printed page. Even the spirits of dead ones, and there are plenty of those in the book.
So it is with the main (and very much living) character, Nina, who is checking in at Manchester airport at the very beginning of the novel: a mess of snot and tears as she sobs uncontrollably, having made the decision to leave her husband and daughter and fly back to her homeland. The insight into the apparent logic behind her less-than-rational behaviour at the airport is balanced against the awkward stares and reactions of other passengers. Throughout the book, there is the sometimes uncomfortable feeling of being able to identify with such a character despite simultaneously knowing how she would be viewed by outside observers.
Then again, it's notable how quickly I got used to the idea of her dead son drinking in a bar in Malta with Jesus (Malta, it transpires, is a haven for the spirits of the dead). Though the central themes of the book are very weighty - and I'll come to those in a minute - they are counterbalanced by some very playful narrative devices: at times strange and slightly dark, but cleverly interwoven and making this a very rich read.
The main thrust of the story is that Nina is returning to her homeland of Malta to try and make amends with her parents: having left the island to study in England, she had a baby out of wedlock and was disowned by her family. Her son is killed in a car crash aged 10, and she feels that this is retribution for her actions . Her return to the island is an attempt to resolve the resulting feelings of regret, loss, guilt and displacement, a perhaps-forlorn hope that everything will be alright if she goes back home.
Many elements combine to make the story come alive, the aforementioned playfulness being one of them. The spirits which Nina can see are wryly handled, and avoid the huge potential for cliche. A beer-drinking, nail-polish-wearing Jesus and a restless, lesbian Geordie house ghost help see to that.
Similarly, the descriptions of Malta are seductive and alluring, yet they never fall into the trap of reading like an extended tourist brochure. They are given depth by the fact that they are being seen through the eyes of someone full of conflict and the uncertainty of their status: a returning native or, indeed, a tourist. The perceived comfort of returning home is balanced against idealised memories being shattered.
The themes of life and death, love and loss are handled in a multilayered way, too: again, without the more violent imagery of earlier novels, but with a similar level of emotional rawness that had a real impact on me. Grief arising from separation and dislocation is given as much weight as the grief from the death of a loved one: nonetheless, one of the more traditional depictions of grief - a deathbed scene - was almost too close for comfort for me.
Questions around identity and belonging - one's internal life and how this interacts with a more external cultural identity - are woven into the fabric of the book from start to finish. Time passes, traditions alter subtly, sometimes not-so-subtly. Culture and religion intermingle with superstition. One of the many things which really stayed with me was the description of the Maltese church which had a bomb dropped on it during the war (the dome of the church was damaged but the bomb didn't explode). An interesting story in its own right, it serves as a metaphor for the dynamic, changing nature of things - and how we change our relationship with them as a result.
Big themes notwithstanding, this was not a difficult book to read: in many ways a complex book, but never at the expense of readability. At times wonderfully odd, funny, poignant, heartwrenching, it was never less than a delight.
Oh and I had to wipe the tears from my eyes more than once while I was reading the last few chapters in a cafe yesterday.
Oh and I want to go to Malta.