Hive by April Doyle – a review
April Doyle’s debut novel imagines a near future Britain ravaged by the impact of Colony Collapse Disorder, and its knock-on effect on the pollination of crops. With the devastating decline of bee populations – a keystone species in the ecosystem – the consequences on food production are catastrophic. Doyle’s Britain is not that dissimilar to the one we already live in – with food banks in more demand than ever, and parents having to make hard choices about how to feed their children – but taken to the extreme. With the rationing system and the constant background gnawing hunger of the characters it feels reminiscent of WW2 and the lean Post-War Years. Folk are forced to rely on their ingenuity, or willingness to transgress the narrow line between civilisation and barbarity. All of this could have been rather grim – Children of Men, Survivors, The Road … we’ve seen it all before: the cliché of dystopia; the tropes that have been done to death. But here, Doyle does something refreshingly different. Although the shadows are clearly present in this starving Britain (and sometimes devastatingly centre-stage) the author on the whole chooses to focus on her small cast – a farmer and his wife and their two young daughters, an old friend, a scientist and her assistant, a boyfriend and an ex-lover. Although they all endure hardship (or worse) their struggles have a life-affirming quality to them. Due to the nature of the scenario Doyle posits, food takes on an almost sacramental quality, as does the ‘miracle of nature’ itself – the wonder of bees, the cycle of life. The entomological aspects are well-researched and are intrinsic to the plot. Use of ‘found’ paratext from scientific journals, documentaries, and so forth deftly weave in exposition between the chapters, providing an interesting shift of register and scale. These could have come across as just a way for Doyle to show her research in an unleavened form (rather than working it into the fiction) but it becomes apparent the orthography of these infodumps have narrative relevance. The novel gains new energy with the addition of nanodrone technology (courtesy of an old flame), developed as replacement pollinators, and this conflation of nature and science is fascinating to read. In the hands of another author (e.g., Michael Crichton) this would have been a tech-thriller, but although this element catalyses things Doyle pulls back from punchy, full-throttle prose. Indeed, it is least convincing when she is forced to describe violence (although the death of one of the main characters is very moving). The chapters sometimes feel too brief, and the final reveal lacks foreshadowing (it is set up, but then strangely forgotten by the characters). Nevertheless, it is a well-told tale, one that was an engaging, enjoyable read. With ‘soft force’ it nudges the reader to think about food and where it comes from. By focusing on a single aspect of the ecosystem – bees – Doyle’s book has greater resonance and authority than those that adopt a wider approach. It is a welcome addition to the growing canon of ecofiction.
Kevan Manwaring, 12 April 2022