Honeybee by Craig Silvey is my first book club read for 2021. It has taken Silvey over ten years to write this book, after the huge success of his second book, Jasper Jones back in 2009.
“I put everything I have into writing Honeybee. It tore me up, but it filled me with joy. I’m enormously proud of it,” Silvey said in the SMH on the 10th June 2020.
It has taken me almost as long to write this response!
I’ve debriefed with Mr Books who read the book last year, and with one of my colleagues who read the book before Christmas. Book club met last Thursday and generated lots of discussion. Mostly glowing and positive. Yet I’m still reluctant to sit down and write this.
So let me start with the book blurb:
Late in the night, fourteen-year-old Sam Watson steps onto a quiet overpass, climbs over the rail, and looks down at the road far below.
At the other end of the same bridge, an old man, Vic, smokes his last cigarette.
The two see each other across the void. A fateful connection is made, and an unlikely friendship blooms. Slowly, we learn what led Sam and Vic to the bridge that night. Bonded by their suffering, each privately commits to the impossible task of saving the other.
Honeybee is a heart-breaking, life-affirming novel that throws us headlong into a world of petty thefts, extortion plots, botched bank robberies, daring dog rescues, and one spectacular drag show.
At the heart of Honeybee is Sam: a solitary, resilient young person battling to navigate the world as their true self; ensnared by a loyalty to a troubled mother, scarred by the volatility of a domineering step-father, and confounded by the kindness of new alliances.
Honeybee is a tender, profoundly moving novel brimming with vivid characters and luminous words. It’s about two lives forever changed by a chance encounter — one offering hope, the other redemption. It’s about when to persevere, and when to be merciful, as Sam learns when to let go, and when to hold on.
One of the less than glowing comments from book club centred around the young adult nature of the story. Like Jasper Jones, the book has a teen narrator, which means that at times the story felt quite simplistic and even dull. In the context of a YA novel, nobody minded this, but there were times when we were all left wanting a more nuanced exploration of the topic.
Silvey’s story encourages empathy and understanding for transgender people (and for old lonely widowers). This is a good thing. I understand the desire and need for transgender people to tell their own stories, in their own words, in their own time. This is important and necessary and will hopefully occur more and more as time goes by. However I do not believe that only transgender people can write a story with a transgender character. If we could only write about our own lived personal experience, reading and writing, would be a much less rich experience. We would end up with nothing but biographies and memoirs on our shelves. One of the reasons we read (and write) is to explore other worlds beyond our lived experiences. That is what fiction does. It opens up our world to other points of view, to another’s perspective. It can make us uncomfortable and challenge our preconceptions. One of the reason we are readers is for the chance books give us to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
We should be trusted to be intelligent readers. We should be trusted to know the difference between a story written by someone with the lived experience of being a part of a certain group and writing about that group with deep insider knowledge, compared to someone who is not. We can then judge how effective the author is, or not. Any story, written by any author, that helps to shine a light on another’s perspective in a sympathetic way, can only be a good thing. It is when we start limiting who can write about what that the problems really occur.
So, for me, there were a few flaws with Silvey’s story. For instance, would drag queens really allow a 14 yr old to go on stage? When someone is trans, does it automatically follow that they are interested in drag? Would a dying widower really leave his estate to a 14 yr old he barely knew? Sometimes writer’s contrive a convenient plot point to advance their story and to provide a sense of hope. That’s okay. We can judge whether we like that or not, or agree with that or not. It then becomes a part of how we talk about the story to others.
I know two transgender people fairly well and I found the extreme nature of Sam’s upbringing distracting. The poverty, violence and neglect he suffered is something that does happen to many children, trans and cis, but it is not the experience of most people. It is certainly not the experience of the transgender people I know. Most Australians (almost 60%) live middle class lives. It’s probably fair to say that a similar number of trans also grow up in middle class families. By focusing on an extreme upbringing it might be possible for some readers to say that Sam only experienced difficulties and confusion about his trans experience due to his socio-economic group. The trans experience is far more complex and nuanced than just socio-economic childhood trauma.
I believe that Honeybee has a place in helping to bring the discussion about transgender lives into the public arena. For many readers this will be the very first time they have ‘met’ a transgender character. Honeybee is a starting point, a beginning. It’s up to all of us to go further and dig deeper.
Other books with trans characters: