Monday, 8 March 2010

Of Bees and Mist - Erick Setiawan

Why isn't this huge?
I haven't heard much about this gem of a pageturner around the blogs, but as soon as I saw it in the shop I knew I wanted to read it. The tag line reads: "Three strong women. Two feuding families. A singular story of enchantment". I didn't need more encouragement than that.
I was immediately hooked. The story was so easy to fall into although at first I was baffled by the use of supernatural elements, which I didn't know how to interpret. As soon as I got the hang of them, and managed to give them some kind of meaning, I dropped all my doubts and let my self be swept away by the story, the characters and the atmospheres.

Of Bees and Mist could be called a family saga, as it reminded me of how I felt when I first read The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. It has also many elements of fairy tales, but I think it is ultimately a story of powerful and extremes emotions. Love, Pain, Jealousy, Loss, Betrayal, Forgiveness. It's a story of relationships, of strong friendship and strong hate. There's not a lot of mild feelings going on here.
Like The Thirteen Tale it avoids carefully to be set in any particular time. It also doesn't give you any name for the country is placed in, not even for the town the whole story revolves around.
This helped to achieve the feeling of a mythical story, with no time or space, which could have happened anywhere, and anytime. Not today though, at least not in Europe. Women here bring a dowry to their spouses. They give birth at home. They wear long dresses and have maids if they're rich. It definitely tells of a world gone by albeit one which can't be confined to any country.
Its mythical features were enhanced by the lack of a specific religion, and the influence that the "spirits" have in the characters' lives. They can take form in ghosts, good or bad omens, premonitions, dreams, visions. They are alive and present the whole time.
It's human beings, though, who have the leading roles, no matter how many supernatural elements it contains. Two women especially: Meridia and Eva.
We follow Meridia's life from her birth in a house chilled by an unforgiving cold, haunted by ghosts in mirrors and by misbehaving staircases, and by an angry mist that surrounds it constantly.
The trick to enjoy this story, I warn you, is to not ask too many questions. Everything has its own interpretation, but you need to keep reading, and to fall into the story, to capture them, layer by layer.
So, yes, there's the mists, and there's the cold. But there's mainly Meridia, a lonely and neglected child of a couple who used to adore each other and now can barely stay in the same room. Meridia's mum Ravenna who teaches her how to be proud and never show her true emotions, suffers from forgetfulness and thus is a vague presence in Meridia's childhood. Her father Gabriel is a stern and cruel man who has never shown her affection. So there's no wonder that when Meridia falls for charming and playful Daniel, she can't wait to marry him and get out of the house. She thought she was escaping the mists to embrace lightness and warmth. Instead she clashes against Eva, Daniel's mother, and from then on she embarks on a lifelong struggle to become independent, smart and strong, while holding on to her marriage and keeping away Eva's bees.
I'll stop here, cause as much as I'm dying to tell you everything I loved about the story and the characters, I'd hate it to spoil it for anyone.
So what more can I say to convince people to read it? That its writing is beautiful? It definitely is. That sometimes when I was reading it I'd forget where I was and outside noises (i.e. cars) would startled me a bit? Er, yes.
That you'd have great fun interpreting the various magical elements? I certainly did. For me they were both real and symbolic. They were simply manifestations of human feelings and actions. There were smells, winds, bees, fireflies, flowers, people becoming invisible, ghosts. Really, there's lots.
You could also say that it's a story about senses. There's plenty of them and they all have important roles. The smells, the tastes, the colours...They are strongly a part of the story and the characters. The food especially is ever present, and you can tell the author had a great time listing the wonderfully exotic and delicious-sounding dishes that Meridia shares with Hannah, her first friend at the Cinema Garden, or with Daniel at the festival of the spirits, or that Ravenna cooks furiously in her kitchen. When food is concerned be sure it won't be your regular meat with three veg.
Not everything is wonderful, though. There were few little things that annoyed me sometimes. I couldn't believe it when I read a passage where Meridia is furious and the narrator describes her by saying "She did not seem like a woman then, but a man far more determined than he was". Really? It seemed ironic, coming from a book like this, where female characters are so much more powerful and strong-minded than male ones. Which brings me to this other thing I didn't like much. The lack of good strong male characters. Daniel is a bit of a wimpy kid, and Gabriel is a block of ice. Like, literally. But the good thing is that these characters grow and change and they all come to show different aspects of themselves, which I really appreciate. No one-dimensional characters here, except for some very minor ones, but that's OK. Because there's this other minor character who I loved to bits and who makes up for all the weak ones, and I'm not gonna tell who it is, but if you read it you'll know.
So, there, when is everyone going to read this now, so I can talk more about it?

other opinions:
In the Shadow of Mt TBR
Joyfully retired
I'm booking it


Bunny B said...

My friend has been raving about this book too! I will have to check this out the next time I'm in a bookstore :)

Jodie said...

It went on my list after seeing the author of 'Shiver' mention it. Lots of interesting things mentioned in your review.

Stephanie said...

I'm going to add it to my wishlist (and hope that the paperback version, out in July, has that beautiful blue cover on it). The orange cover does nothing for me.

valentina said...

Bunny, your friend is right! Hope you get to read it.

Jodie, I haven't read Shiver, but maybe I should put in on my wishlist? ;)

Stephanie, the blue/gray cover is the UK version, the one I have. But I also like the orange one, it hides lots of symbols from the book which I'm sure would be fun to identify.
But if you don't fancy it at all you can always buy the British edition on
It's in paperback already.

Jodie said...

valentina - I really want Shiver, it sounds like a fab romance and I think the werewolf teen lit should be encouraged to balence out the vamps.