Friday, January 8, 2010

Book Review by Aimee: Of Bees and Mist, by Erick Setiawan

You know those books where after you've finished them, you just sit, a little stunned and a lot awed? Yep, this is one of those books.

Of Bees and Mist, despite its front cover commentary and its back cover blurb, is less a story of fairytale and more a psychological exploration of family curses. Meridia is trapped in a household where magic dominates - the mist arrives to carry her father from her mother every day, though Meridia knows not where or to who it leads. When finally a Prince Charming comes along for Meridia, she falls deeply. Her parents, offering little passion for the occasion, but a sizable dowry, release Meridia into the strong and capable arms of her future husband's family. But Meridia soon despairs when she learns her marriage is not an escape from the mist that haunted her childhood, but rather a trading of that mist, for a swarm of unforgiving, ever-droning bees.

This is super-duper fiction - generous with the magical realism, slightly more generous with home truths. From the beginning you'll be happy with the quality of the writing, but it won't be until pages 100-150 that you'll settle further into the corner of your couch, and allow the fierce droning of the bees and the sweetly-perfumed tendrils of the oncoming mist to completely transport you. The setting is exotic but you can't pin it down to a particular culture - the people and places could be from anywhere and any time. But the careful mix of the old and the new keep the place from becoming neither too boringly familiar nor too aesthetically alien.

Similarly, this book could have easily drowned itself in overly lyrical language, but the sentences are, for the most part, surprisingly self-assured. Any minor irritations I had in word choice or length of scene were soothed by the superior quality of the overall work.

So, what about the characters? Brilliantly emotive. In the cultural family hierarchy, it is the men who are the expected head of the household, but there is no doubt that the women of this story are the warrior goddesses exhibiting true strength, determined to win against their opponents, manipulative and selfless in equal measure, the possessors of the greatest love that turns to the darkest hate.

Give me the woman who hasn't balked at a mother-in-law's particular 'suggestion' on how to clean her house, treat her man, raise her children- even if only in the most secret corners of her honest mind - and I won't give her this book to read. She doesn't deserve it - her life is already perfect! But if you've ever been interested how family members can undermine and overpower and twist and turn other family members for their own's a tasty pot of strong personalities indeed.

And as for the central personality - despite her flaws and miscalculations, a reader's empathy for Meridia never wavers - she is a heroine carrying herself with a clever mind and an elegant dignity all through her big mistakes and her little victories. I'm so amazed at the attention the author gives to the inner workings of the female mind in this story. Meridia is a fascinating character in and of herself, but then again, so is her chillingly-distant mother Ravenna, as is the grotesquely cruel Eva, Meridia's mother-in-law intent on bringing Meridia to her knees. Eva's weapon of choice? Words. In the form of bees. Boasting in the corridors, manipulative whispers and untrue gossip hung on the end of well-intentioned ears, must-be-kept secrets sent buzzing through the corridors and spilling out onto the streets. Wowsers.

I could go on for a fair bit more about this book, exploring its colourful themes and its epic quality... but I think perhaps it might be nicer for the reader to go fossicking and discover Of Bees and Mist's strange beauty all for themselves. Maybe then someone can answer the burning question: i.e. why hasn't this won a literary award yet?!

Though not for absolutely everyone, lovers of magic realism in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez will appreciate the book's 'exotic' quality, and those who enjoy the 'real-life' drama of spitting words and malicious acts of women protecting their territory will also tear through this family saga. Either way it's a safe bet you've never read a novel quite like this before...

Such a spunky yet elegant, commanding read - I am most suitably impressed, and kind of crushing on your writing right now, Mr Setiawan. Hope you don't mind.

Received: For Review.

Other Opinions:

Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World
the celebrity cafe
The Washington Post Book Review
I'm Booking It
Literary Lotus
Book Chatter
Words on Words by Maggie Stiefvater
Huntington News

[Please let me know if you have reviewed this book so I can add it to the list above!]


Tanguera said...

Sounds like an amazing book. I'll need to add it to one of my TBR piles.

Laura Elliott said...

Great review and this book will have to be squeezed into the list of what I'm reading this year. Can't wait to read "Of Bees and Mist." Loved the links to the other reviews too.