Hour of the Bees is Utah-based YA writer, Lindsay Eagar’s debut novel. It’s a captivating story about a family spending a summer together on the sprawling sheep ranch which has been in their family for generations. The story centres around twelve year old Carol. At first Carol isn’t at all keen to give up her entire summer holidays to spend time with her grandfather, Serge on a sheep ranch in the middle of nowhere. Carol, her half-sister Alta, and little brother Lu are used to their life back in the city, with their friends and all the comforts of home. There’s absolutely nothing to entertain them on the sheep ranch, worse still the whole area’s been subject to a drought for decades and the summer months are unbearably hot. Carol and her family don’t really have a choice in terms of where they spend their summer. Serge is extremely elderly and has grown frail. His advancing dementia means he’s increasingly confused, mixing the past with the present and sometimes even mistaking Carol for his late wife as a girl. Serge is moving to a residential care facility at the end of the summer and the family have only a few months to get the ranch fixed up before it’s put up for sale.
Eagar weaves a beautiful magical realist story through the more familiar story of a family struggling to cope with change in the present and resurfacing hurts from the past. Carol grows close to her grandfather as he tells her a long and enchanting fairy tale about her families origins. She comes to understand that her roots and identity are tightly bound to the ranch and ultimately begins to empathise with Serge’s insistence that the land should stay in the family and not be sold to strangers. It’s a beautifully written story and a really enjoyable read with strong emphasis on the importance of listening to older people and valuing family connections.
However, I really struggled with the dementia narrative in this novel. Serge’s dementia feels like a kind of device used to propel the plot. He’s portrayed as confused and frail when the story requires him to be an object of pity or a bone of contention, grating up against the family’s plans. At other points he’s almost miraculously coherent and portrayed as quite strong and virile for such an elderly man. For example, though he frequently finds communication difficult he’s able to narrate, long and extremely eloquent stories about his past. I understand that the magic realist narrative running through the novel allows for a certain amount of liberty to be taken with how the characters are portrayed but I’d be a little concerned that young people with no experience of dementia who read this novel might not get an accurate idea of what the illness is actually like. Eagar, also weaves in a semi-miraculous happy ending for Serge and Carol which is very different from most people’s end of life experience with a loved one who has dementia. It’s an ongoing struggle when reading and writing fictional dementia narratives. The characters need to be written accurately and ethically and yet are also there to serve the story. For me, the balance isn’t quite right in Hour of the Bees, but it’s still an enjoyable read.
Hour of the Bees was published by Walker Books in 2016