Published by Bloomsbury, August 2020 | Fiction, Verse, Women
It’s not too surprising that Sarah Crossan, usually a writer for children, has chosen to delve into the murky depths of infidelity for her first novel for adults, Here is the Beehive.
Infidelity and literature have long made a perfect marriage.
Why wouldn’t they?
Forsaking morality, yielding to passion, violating trust, concealing disloyalty – all ingredients for gripping narrative.
That may be why it’s the topic at the heart of scores of the most famed novels, as far back as the introspective 1678 work, La Princesse de Cleves, through to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly's Lover to name a few.
What is surprising about Crossan’s novel is that she is able to bring to this age-old theme a spellbinding new perspective.
It starts with the shocking discovery by Ana, the novel’s narrator, of the unexpected death of Connor, a married man with whom she’s had a tempestuous, clandestine affair for three years.
Suddenly thrust into mourning, Ana must shroud her grief in as much secrecy as the affair itself. This sets the scene for an artful exploration of the toxic combination of loss and obsession as Ana navigates the unravelling of the future she’d envisioned with her secret lover.
Things get particularly uncomfortable as Ana – a sharp-witted yet jaded, unsentimental family lawyer – becomes desperate to seek the impossible: validation that her relationship with Connor was more important than the relationship she imagined he had with his wife, Rebecca.
This compels Ana to furtively and obsessively inch her way into Connor’s unsuspecting wife’s life – visiting her home, offering to babysit her children, dropping in on her yoga class – with results sometimes comical, often awkward and always painful.
One of the many triumphs of Crossan’s novel is its striking form.
The Irish author has chosen to write in verse: short bursts of narration, laid out with wonderful irregularity, spilling out Ana’s unfiltered, uncontested thoughts.
This form allows Crossan to dance in a delightfully dizzying way between Ana’s present and the events of the past three years since her affair with Connor began. The perspective also regularly shifts, as Ana’s disarming – edging on unsentimental – first person narration slips in and out of an intimate one-way conversation with her dead lover Connor.
You can hear Ana’s drifting focus early in the novel, as she blends in with mourners at Connor’s funeral. While reflecting that she’d never anticipated confronting Connor’s family’s grief but admitting it’s what she’d wanted, her thoughts are distracted by her grip on a bunch of white carnations:
‘You never mentioned a fondness for flowers
but soon you shall be carpeted in
as a mark of love.
How do you smell now?
Are your nails long?’
Crossan’s masterly jumble of these narrative effects, in verse, reflects Ana’s chaotic, isolated state of mind through her struggle with the loss of Connor, her only coping mechanism her obsessive plight to hold onto his memory.
Another thrill of this novel is Crossan’s drip feeding of unexpected details surrounding the love affair, including the unveiling well into the story of pivotal characters in Ana’s orbit (not named here to avoid spoilers), at first perplexing for the reader as you work to figure out where they all fit in. These new facts subtly yet fundamentally alter the reader’s perceptions of both Ana and Connor as the story starts to bond together.
It has the effect of swinging the pendulum as to who is the more flawed: Ana or Connor?
At times we are as frustrated as Ana with Connor, having no clarity around his motivations for the affair and growing doubts that he had ever intended to leave Rebecca:
‘It is curious,
the things you told me
and thought I would enjoy.
It is a mystery
I never chastised you for it.
Acceptance: it was my bounteous gift to you.
For a while.’
At other times, questions start to creep in about what is driving Ana in this affair, the soundness of her interpretation of events and the harmfulness of her grief-induced actions to those around her.
The beauty of it is that the truth is always just out of reach, as we cannot hear absent Connor’s point of view – only Ana’s.
Crossan, named Ireland’s laureate for children’s literature in 2018, honed her mastery of verse in her previous novels for young adults including the award winning Apple and Rain and One. September 2021 also sees the release of Tomorrow is Beautiful, published by Bloomsbury, containing a selection of classic and contemporary poems chosen by Crossan.
As her first novel for adults, Here is the Beehive is utterly gripping. It’s original and deeply entertaining, full of tension, longing and obsession, sweeping you up in the chaos of Ana’s life.
And despite its tragic themes, it’s tone is often comical and always frank.
Its title? As we discover half way through, it’s from the singsong child’s rhyme of the same name, in which the bees, which are busy but hidden in the hive, eventually fly away – a nice metaphor for the secret life of Ana and Connor.
I loved this book. The dysfunction of Ana had me mesmorised. Being written in verse may throw some people off but it's well worth the crazy ride.