The Honey Farm:
About the Book:
After a long drought, Cynthia’s isolated honey farm has suffered in the heat. Soil dries into sand; honeycomb stiffens into wax. But she has a plan: offer the farm as an artists’ colony with free board and ‘life experience’ in exchange for a summer of hard labour. For Silvia, a recent graduate and would-be poet, the chance to test her independence proves irresistible – as does Ibrahim, a passionate painter she meets there.
But the honey farm isn’t all it seems. The idyllic summer is soon plagued by ominous events: taps run red, scalps itch with lice, frogs swarm the pond. The constant drone of bees begins to build like thunder in the air.
One by one the other residents leave, until only Silvia and Ibrahim remain – perilously in love under Cynthia’s watchful eye. And as summer shifts into autumn, Silvia becomes increasingly paranoid that they are in danger. What are the shadowy secrets that Cynthia is hiding? And if Silvia and Ibrahim have overstayed their welcome, what happens when they want to leave?
The Honey Farm is quite an interesting story. It’s very creepy, in the sense that there is a great deal of foreboding present throughout. The narrative is beautifully lyrical, particularly when describing elements of nature within the northern Ontario lanscape and the changing of the seasons. Every single word about the bees was sublime. I so enjoyed the meticulous detailing of beekeeping, the relationship of bees to the environment, and the bee handling; some of these scenes were so engrossing and informative. Bees are rather brutal creatures though, and the author used this to its full advantage when creating that sense of foreboding I previously mentioned, along with other normal farming day to day situations; with a sleight of hand, the author managed to effectively create an altered universe where the reader was never quite sure of the situation unfolding before them.
Where this novel shines is in the clever characterisation and foreshadowing. Cynthia, the owner of the bee farm, is clearly intense, yet I veered from thinking she was up to something to thinking she was simply acting normal for a farmer who is used to living alone. Her farm assistant, Hartford, was as loyal as they come, yet at times, I felt as though he was tentatively warning the others, watching Cynthia closely, and bracing himself for something untoward. Ibrahim was incredibly weak, easily flattered and consequently misguided. I became disappointed in Ibrahim part way through the novel and this never eased, merely intensified.
Sylvia, who I’d like to think of as our main character, was crafted to perfection. Escaping the confines of a strict religious upbringing, coming to the Honey Farm was the first decision she had made on her own. She signed up as a means of finding herself, telling everyone she was a poet, yet she never wrote a single thing. Cynthia is immediately drawn to Sylvia because she strongly resembles her previous partner, a woman named Hilary who left her, taking their daughter with her. The reasons for this are left undisclosed but as the novel progressed, there were enough hints, combined with Cynthia’s bizarre behaviour, to enable me to put two and two together. Sylvia becomes an unwitting pawn in Cynthia’s game, and as the inevitable occurs, things just go from bad to worse. Incidentally, Sylvia’s predicament draws attention to one of the more problematic aspects of organised religion: the manifestation of guilt and how easily this can be used to manipulate a young person who has lost their way. Cynthia saw this in Sylvia very early on and used it to her full advantage. Had Sylvia perhaps been more worldly and less steeped in religious induced guilt, then she might have been safe from Cynthia’s machinations.
There are many biblical references throughout which tie in neatly with Sylvia’s religious upbringing and present day beliefs. I thought this aspect of the story was very well drawn out and when combined with the behaviour of the migrating bees, a powerful Armageddon style day of doom element began to play out. I think, in all honesty, that Cynthia was poisoning Sylvia with some sort of hallucinogenic substance, increasing it over time. There was a confusion to Sylvia’s scenes as the novel progressed that was reminiscent of that movie starring Natalie Porter, Black Swan. Sylvia increasingly was set up to be an unreliable narrator, a technique the author executed with skill. I am only hypothesising about the poison because we never find out what really was going on. Which brings me to my problem with this novel.
It just finishes. Now, I have no problem with stories that just fade off, curtain dropped, that’s the end. I don’t necessarily need to have everything tied up in a neat little bow with no loose ends. But I kid you not when I say that I was closely examining my copy of this book for missing pages. Sadly, I quickly realised that my inspection of the spine for gaps was futile as the last page was numbered 326 and the acknowledgement began on page 327. Not only is there no resolution with this story, but I truly was left with this sense of having no idea about what had just happened. It’s almost like the author simply tired of writing about these characters and gave up. This spoilt the novel for me and also ticked me off quite a bit. Not only do I not know if all of my guess work was right, I also feel as though I wasted several hours reading this novel, enjoying it, puzzling over it, being unsettled by it, only to have it taken away from me at the last, and very crucial moment. I was, and still am, rather disappointed, which is such a shame because all that came before this was incredibly good.
A quick perusal of other early reviews shows a lot of consensus with my view on the ending. A few reviewers made a great mention of how they didn’t need more resolution at the end because they knew exactly what was going on and weren’t left wondering at all. The fact they mentioned all of this tells me otherwise. Why mention it if it didn’t unsettle you? Do I recommend this novel? I don’t know. Up until page 326, I was enjoying it immensely, utterly engrossed in the miniature of life on the honey farm. Turns out I do like a proper ending though. If you don’t, then this might be a novel you will enjoy. But don’t come back at the end and say I didn’t warn you!
Thanks is extended to Penguin Random House Australia for providing me with a copy of The Honey Farm for review.
About the Author:
Harriet Alida Lye is a writer from Richmond Hill, Ontario. She studied Philosophy and English at the University of King’s College and lived in Paris for the better part of eight years, where she worked as a bookseller at Shakespeare & Company, an English teacher for the children of Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva, a storytelling researcher for Google, a painter’s model, and various other jobs that kept her from completely starving as an artist. She founded and edited Her Royal Majesty, a literary arts magazine that ran for six years and 13 issues and published James Franco, Robert Hass, and the first-ever short story by Alice Munro. Her fiction, essays and reporting have been published by VICE, Hazlitt, Happy Reader, The Guardian, The National Post, and more. Harriet now lives in Toronto, and works at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.