The opening line of this novel, ‘He’d been climbing for three hours when he saw the odd colour through the tawny trees’, and the evocation of a tryst – the character comes across a naked woman roped with scars, about to take a dip in the chilly river - echoes the opening of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour so strongly that I expected a flourish of Monarch butterflies in the next few lines. Instead, there were bees, referenced through the figure of Evangeline, the woman whom Jim stumbles across. She sells the family’s honey at the market in the town of Bidgalong and her husband, Stefan, is a beekeeper. The community in which they live, with its broken commune and hippies, is reminiscent of Byron Bay.
Any book about bees, these days, is usually a reference to environmental destruction, with good reason: in the last five years in the US, 30% of the national bee population has disappeared due to colony collapse. There are a number of reasons, including pesticides and climactic extremes such as drought and harsh winters. Australian scientists have suggested that these stressors mean that the next generation matures too quickly, and then they die when they go out to forage for food because it’s such an energy-intensive activity.
In Mireille Juchau's The World Without Us, the characters’ trauma is also intergenerational. Tess and Meg have lost their sister to leukaemia. Tess becomes mute with grief, her mother Evangeline stops painting and wanders the countryside with an umbrella, and her father Stefan takes to drink. Evangeline’s grief is layered onto an older sadness occasioned by the breakdown of the Hive, a commune in which she was raised, and which is stirred up by Stefan’s discovery of bones on their property. Meanwhile, Jim, Tess’s schoolteacher who has relocated from the city, struggles to establish himself after a failed relationship involving children. He is visited by the loss of his mother when he was a boy, while another secondary character, Tommy, looks after his mother, afflicted by dementia, and searches for his absent father.
In less capable hands, this book would have been a disaster. There are so many strands, so many parentless children, that it could easily have spiralled out of control or tipped into melodrama. Instead, Juchau keeps the threads tightly bound and contained. Sometimes this makes the writing affectless, but this is a necessary characteristic when so many internal storms populate the pages, and it is still undeniably beautiful, such as when Tess sees a native hive:
'That sound getting steadily louder, the livid air pocked with busy insects. Closer, inside the dim cavern of that ruined hall, the noise is unmistakeable.
As her eyes adjust Tess sees what’s hanging from the ceiling and jutting like lichen in thick, creamy layers. They protrude from the wall and fan from the corners. They garland the roof beams. Great waxy chandeliers lit with yellow bees’ (161).'
Garland. Creamy. Chandeliers. All adjectives that denote wealthy and luxury.
Throughout the novel, the bees symbolise humans’ attempts to keep functioning when there are internal stressors such as loss and grief, and external stressors such as fracking, which divides the community. By transferring the non-human to the realm of the human, it shows us how difficult it is for anything to survive when too much strain is placed upon it. Perhaps if readers can see how a human ecosystem can fall apart, they might also see how a non-human ecosystem can be similarly impacted, particularly by their own actions.
Within this, the native hive, so luxuriously rendered, could be seen as a symbol of hope. We have one last chance – Paris made that clear to everyone across the world – and if we squander it, we’ll die. This will be no great loss to nature – it will flourish without us – but if we lose each other, as this novel signals, we’ll be decimated by the loss of our environment and of our selves.
This is my 9th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.