I didn’t receive Honeybee by Craig Silvey for review but had only seen positive comments about it so leapt at the chance when a friend suggested I borrow her copy.
On contemplating this book I was very much reminded of a comment I made after reading Favel Parrett’s When The Night Comes – about people coming into our lives when we most need them. Here, for Sam it’s ostensibly Vic. But through Vic it’s also nurse by day and drag queen by night Peter / Fella Bitzgerald and Vic’s neighbour, young Aggie.Honeybee
by Craig Silvey
Published by Allen & Unwin
Genres: Literary Fiction, General Fiction
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.
This will certainly be one of my favourite books of the year.
Sam is delightful and an honest and guileless narrator. It’s hard – at times – being an adult and understanding better than the 14yr old… what they don’t yet know or understand. Although I think Sam is obviously mature for his years he also seems naive. I contemplated this a little and realised he’s not really given permission for self-reflection growing up. He’s surprisingly non-judgemental; except when it comes to himself. He seems to observe others but doesn’t understand them.
Unsurprisingly he doesn’t let anyone ‘in’ easily.
I also adored Vic. Silvey could easily have given us a curmudgeonly cliché but there’s far more to Vic than is obvious. His stoicism has seen him continue since the death of his beloved wife Edie and we readers realise Sam gives the older man something to live for, even if Sam doesn’t understand it (doesn’t trust anyone enough to believe it) himself.
I loved that Vic accepts Sam’s need to cross-dress and asks no questions. It’s not until later that Sam’s able to articulate the way that dressing in traditionally female* clothes, like cooking, makes him feel safe and happy. That he understands the concept of ‘identity’.
Sam and his story reminded me of the resilience of children as well as their vulnerability.
Edie’s diaries made me realise life was made up of lots of small moments that you could control and a few big ones that you couldn’t. p 97
Silvey’s characters are gloriously drawn. Complex and engaging. We come to care about them deeply. But he hits the (people, prose, plot) trifecta for me as Sam’s story draws us in and we’re soon invested. And there’s a sense of urgency. Through Vic, Peter and Aggie, Sam has met people who care about him and could change his life, but his past and his family loom large.
Finally, Silvey’s writing is beautiful. There’s a point three-quarters of the way through the novel in which I started crying and I’m not sure I stopped until Sam’s story was finished.
Much about this book is confronting. We may not be able to relate to Sam’s experience. His relationship with his mother and her treatment of him. The life he’s forced to lead with his mother’s boyfriend. The way he’s treated by others. His discomfort / lack of resonance or presence in his own body.
But I could certainly relate to his issues around self-worth. Of feeling you’re unworthy. That you’re not enough. That you’re not lovable. And that it’s your fault.
When we don’t think we’re worth much, we find ways to make our world small. We don’t allow ourselves to hope, because we’ve already accepted failure. And this pattern of thinking often determines the outcome of our most important choices. But, Sam, I have to tell you that doubt and confidence are both acts of faith. They’re both predictions of our capabilities. We either tell ourselves that we can or we can’t. And these beliefs are a self-fulfilling prophecy, because we validate our doubts by giving up just as much as we embolden ourselves by refusing to give in. The only way you can break this cycle is to be brave. You have to ignore your doubts and risk failure. You have to try to achieve something that seemed unachievable. This is the best recipe for confidence. And confidence is how we start giving ourselves permission to take up more space in the world, to want more for ourselves, and to feel as though we deserve it. pp 389-390
My only slightly obsessive qualm is that we know Sam’s mother calls him Honeybee early in the book but when they’re forced to leave their flat he talks about leaving Honeybee behind, which confused me a little as I wasn’t sure to what he was referring. It’s not until later we learn the significance of Honeybee…
I loved this book. It’s one I certainly won’t forget for a long time. It’ll stay with me and I suspect Sam will appear in my thoughts when I least expect it.
* I’m conscious I might get some terminology wrong here and I apologise for that in advance.
Honeybee by Craig Silvey was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and now available.