Friendship between two beekeepers leads to tragedy.
Elderly bachelor Albert Honig has lived in a California orange grove all his life, tending to several beehives. The neighborhood around him is gradually changing as farmland gives way to freeways and strip malls. The routine he has cultivated, imparted long ago by his own father, is comforting, until one day in 1992, it is disrupted when he discovers the bodies of his next-door neighbors, murdered, it appears, during a botched robbery. The victims, Hilda and Claire Straussman, sisters known as the Bee Ladies, are also lifelong residents of the area, and perhaps their bodies would have been discovered earlier had Albert not been estranged from them for the past 11 years. The estrangement becomes the central quandary of the novel, which weaves back and forth in time, exploring the longstanding but forever unacknowledged attachment between contemplative Albert and sylphlike, mercurial Claire. Bee lore, grounded equally in modern science and ancient tradition, is interspersed throughout, positing the life of the hive as a template for a human family. As Albert is interrogated by a suitably sardonic police detective, his circumspect narration raises other mysteries besides the identity of the culprits: What happened to turn Hilda into a taciturn hulk? Who inflicted the bruises on teenage Claire’s neck? What accounts for 20-something Claire’s long stay in Alabama, after which she returned with an infant? That infant, David Gilbert, supposedly abandoned by a relative to be raised by the Straussmans, will, in turn, become estranged from the Bee Ladies—based on the same incident which severed Albert’s connection with them. Someone is eventually convicted of the murders, but a question remains: Was this truly a random tragedy or one as inevitable as a bee colony’s collapse? The sheer oddness of Albert’s world contributes to a sense of creeping dread, and his ornate diction successfully conveys his archaic sensibility, with occasional lapses in clarity.
An intermittently arcane but undeniably original debut.