Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Craig Silvey, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, general, Publisher, Reading Projects, TBR 21

‘Honeybee’ by Craig Silvey

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 432 pages; 2020.

Craig Silvey’s latest novel, Honeybee, is a nice reminder that I ought to always come at books with an open mind. For various reasons, I had not expected to like this book*, but I was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining I found it.

It deals with some universal issues, some of which might be triggering, including drug use, criminality, suicide, domestic violence and sexual identity, but does so in an empathetic manner, free from sensationalism.

And it’s super easy to read, not because the prose is pedestrian, but because it lacks literary flourish — indeed, I would brand it as “general fiction” and it could certainly slot into the Young Adult genre with no problem. (I say all this by way of putting the book into context, rather than being snobby about it.)

An unlikely friendship

The story is set in and around Perth (Silvey is a local author) and focuses on a troubled teenager trying to figure out their identity.

When the book opens, 14-year-old Sam Watson, who also goes by the pet name of “Honeybee”, is contemplating suicide by jumping off a bridge. By sheer coincidence, an elderly man called Vic is on the same overpass planning the same thing. The pair end up saving each other and forge an unlikely friendship.

Honeybee charts this friendship through enormous ups and downs as Sam’s family loyalties are tested (his alcoholic mother is addicted to drugs and his step-father is abusive and domineering), while Vic is coming to terms with the loss of his beloved wife after a long and happy marriage.

PLOT SPOILER

It’s almost impossible to write about this book without mentioning the key issue at its heart: Sam is a boy who wants to be a girl, and it is this confusion over his sexual identity that is the cause of so much heartache. When he becomes homeless, he moves in with Vic, who provides the moral support required to become his true, authentic self — but there’s a few bumps along the way.

END OF PLOT SPOILER

The story, which is essentially about learning to love and accept yourself before you can love and accept others, is narrated in the first-person by Sam, who is a naive soul, full of kindness, sensitivity and confusion. He loves fashion and food, tolerates his mother’s bad habits and circle of friends, but dreams of a better life: he knows he lives in the margins but can’t see a way out.

The narrative moves forward via a series of set pieces in which Sam develops his talent for cooking (the descriptions of food are so mouth-wateringly delicious I often felt hungry reading this book), befriends a drag queen, enters therapy and plots a bank robbery.

There’s a few farcical moments, some scary moments, sad moments and violent moments. But there are also a few moments which strain readerly belief; for all its focus on important “issues” there is an element of far-fetched boys’ own adventure that might not be to everyone’s liking (and which I had problems with in Silvey’s debut novel, Jasper Jones, written 11 years earlier).

An entertaining fast-paced read

But all that aside, Honeybee is an entertaining — and tender — read. It’s full of heart and warmth and humanity. Don’t expect anything highbrow. This is a fun read with fun, vividly alive, characters and you’ll race through it in no time! Sure, it’s probably not Silvey’s tale to tell, but I think his intentions come from the right place.

At this stage, Honeybee, which was Dymock’s Book of the Year for 2020, is only available in Australia. (I can’t find a publication date for it in other territories.)

The author is appearing at the Perth Festival this weekend (20 February) and if you purchase a ticket you can watch the session online at home, wherever you are in the world, for up to two weeks after the event. To find out more, visit the Perth Festival website.

For another take on this novel, please see Tony’s review at Tony’s Reading List.

* I was not a fan of his debut novel, Jasper Jones, though the rest of the world disagreed with me, and having heard a little bit about what this new book is about, I had to wonder about his right to tell a story that is not his lived experience and might be better coming from someone in the trans community.

This is my 4th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. 

And because Silvey is from Fremantle, this book also qualifies as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

13 thoughts on “‘Honeybee’ by Craig Silvey”

  1. Glad to see you enjoyed it 🙂 This is a book I liked, even if I didn’t think it was that great, but the general consensus seems to be more positive. Interestingly, this was my second-most viewed new review last year (behind the first of my posts on Mieko Kawakami’s ‘Breasts and Eggs’), and it’s currently the most popular review post this year, too!

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    1. Like you say, it’s a likeable book but not a great one. Interesting to see if this review attracts a lot of hits. At the moment my most viewed review is Jane Harper’s new one, which I thought fairly average.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think that’s the way it goes, big hits on mainstream books that the average reader is already thinking of trying. If I wanted to monetise my blog and get as many hits as possible, I’d be focusing on the books publishers are pushing…

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  2. I finally posted my review for Honeybee today, after procrastinating for weeks (I finished reading the book mid-Jan). Even though I enjoyed Jasper Jones, I was reluctant to read this. I think I thought it would be more of the same, just different characters. And it kind of was.
    I’m also done with reading most YA books (which is a bit hard considering it’s a big part of my day-job), unless it can offer something special to lure me in. But my book group picked Honeybee as our Feb book, so I figured I might as well check it out for myself.
    And as you say, it’s quick and easy to read, quite entertaining.

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    1. I finished this book weeks ago, too, but it generally takes me a month to review anything 🤷🏻‍♀️ At least it gives time for the book to settle.

      I enjoyed the book but it was a bit like fairy floss: it gave me a sugar rush but that’s about it. It’s a simplistic, slightly exaggerated story, which makes it entertaining but doesn’t really do much else. I think teens would love it. I’ll have to pop by and read your review…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It must be a Perth thing, two people contemplating jumping from an overpass at the same time. Elizabeth Tan has the same situation in Smart Ovens for Lonely People.
    I think I had a shot at Jasper Jones as an audiobook and couldn’t finish it (I don’t keep notes).

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    1. Oh my goodness, does she? How ghastly. Apparently Silvey actually helped stop someone from jumping (at Canning Bridge??, I can’t quite remember the detail), which is what inspired him to write the novel.

      You didn’t miss anything with Jasper Jones. I hated it.

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    1. Thanks, Mystica. It is an *unusual* book…a good read, though, and one that’s given me lots to think about, not just the story itself but whether the author has done a good job and is “allowed” to write something that is outside of his experience.

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