Honeybee | Craig Silvey

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 can feel quite simplistic. In the context of a YA novel, nobody actually 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 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.

Rant over.

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? But then again, 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, but it is not the experience of most people. It is certainly not the experience of the transgender people I know. It might be possible for some readers to say that Sam only experienced difficulties and confusion about his trans experience due to the extreme nature of his upbringing.

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:

16 thoughts on “Honeybee | Craig Silvey

    1. I am glad I read it. It was quick and easy. But I do sometimes wonder if book club is for me, when I also feel resentment at reading a book I had no intention of reading, and that takes me away from reading something I’d much rather be reading (in this case The Pea-Pickers)!

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  1. Yes, that has always been the problem with book clubs I’ve belong to. Of course, yes, it does widen our reading horizons, and of course, yes, it’s good not to get in a rut, but at the end of the day you’re reading something that is not your choice, and you’re not even enjoying it much. And when there’s not enough time to read everything you want to read, that makes it difficult not to feel resentful.
    (And with some books, and some book clubs, woe betide you if you say that, because some people take it as a personal criticism of them because they chose the book!!)

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  2. I wanted to like Honeybee more than what I did but was also annoyed by some of the more unlikely events too. Based on my enjoyment of Jasper Jones though, I’ll be reading whatever Craig Silvey writes next. The book club discussion must have been interesting.

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        1. Now that I’m in my 50’s the idea of wasting a reading week with a book I’m not really in to, seems like sacrilege! Every book I read from here on in, is one that I really want to read!! You’re my witness 😁

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  3. I, on the other hand, believe people should only tell their own stories – well, maybe not that, but that men shouldn’t tell women’s stories and that whites shouldn’t tell the stories of POC. Old white men have been telling ALL the stories for so long that it is time they shut up and listened.
    There is plenty of fiction that can be written without people with power or privilege talking over the top of people without power or privilege.

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    1. I don’t necessarily disagree with you about old, white men dominating the scene for so long. It’s why I don’t understand why Steinbeck and Hemingway are still held in such esteem – their female characters always have been and still are, laughable, either angel or whore.

      I’ll be curious to see how I go with Frank Moorhouse and the Edith Trilogy later on this year. I did love the first two a lot, because Edith was so great. At the time I was amazed a man had written her.

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        1. I loved East of Eden when I read it in my 20’s, but honestly those women!!! My recall of Grapes is much hazier, except for the grinding poverty. I always assumed that Steinbeck had some unresolved religious/mother issues!

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  4. Aha! You moved to WordPress! Why didn’t I know this?

    My thoughts largely chime with yours. I wasn’t sure that Silvey should be telling this story, but then who else is writing novels about transgender teens?

    As to your question, “would drag queens really allow a 14 yr old to go on stage?” I did wonder that myself until I found out my friend and fellow UQ journo graduate directed a documentary on SBS that was about just this issue. Have you seen it? https://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/1840419395935/bowled-over-untold-australia?cx_cid=od:search:sem:convert:dynamic:v1:prog&gclid=CjwKCAiAmrOBBhA0EiwArn3mfL89W4tSqO3crdixIgwHNuSql_oeWVng_0HVzt7nVhJDvAfGmmPMexoCQHkQAvD_BwE

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      1. Hope you get to watch… I thought it was very enjoyable.

        And I’ve now subscribed to your blog, so expect to see more comments from me moving forward. I couldn’t comment on any blogger blogs so stopped reading them…

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