Honeybee by Craig Silvey, best-selling author of Jasper Jones, is a big, beautiful coming-of-age novel. Like Hope Farm, by Peggy Frew, which I reviewed recently, it tells a story of a childhood with an immature, addicted mother.
Tender, compassionate and at the same time gritty, Honeybee confronted and challenged me.
Honeybee – the story
The story begins with protagonist and narrator, fourteen-year-old Sam Watson, on an overpass, contemplating suicide. At the other end of the overpass, the old man, Vic, smokes what may well have been his last cigarette. He has recently buried the dog his late wife had loved and feels he has nothing left to live for.
Vic and Sam save each other. They soon develop an unconventional and comfort-filled friendship which becomes a different sort of ‘family’ when Sam moves into the bedroom Vic once shared with his wife. Vic tolerates Sam’s exploration of his wife’s extensive wardrobe, and benefits from his boarder’s culinary skills.
Sam soon becomes part of the neighbourhood when the irrepressible Aggie Meemeduma and her family befriend him. A neighbour, Mrs Boyd, takes a not always welcome interest in his well-being. A drag-queen, Fella Bitzgerald, shows Sam compassion and understanding.
Conveniently for the plot of the novel, in her daytime job, Fella is a registered nurse, Peter.
These friendships, different from any he has previously known, form a secure background against which Sam can come to terms with his traumatic, crime-riddled childhood and brutal step-father.
With the help and support of Peter and therapist Diane he can explore the unfolding direction of his life.
Craig Silvey is a Western Australian author who grew up in a small country town (Dwellingup) about 100 kilometres from Perth, the capital of the state. Honeybee is firmly set in Perth, my hometown for the last 80 odd years. I delighted in the casual dropping of place names I could so easily relate to.
A brave book
Honeybee deals, among other difficult topics, with the dysphoria that Sam experiences as his body matures in ways that do not fit with his perception of his gender. It explores issues such as cross-dressing, gender difference and homophobia.
There has been some criticism from reviewers (see here and here) who seem to suggest that unless a writer has experienced gender dysphoria or transgender issues, they should not write about them. But Craig Silvey has researched his subject thoroughly and writes with sympathy and compassion.
Honeybee held my attention from start to finish and felt ‘right’ even for an older woman who occasionally struggles to understand the full implications of the many different gender orientations about which I’m becoming aware.