Honeybee by Craig Silvey

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Sam Watson is fourteen years old and very troubled.  From a young age, he always felt most comfortable and most in tune with his real self when he dressed in his mother’s clothes.  In his first year of school, Sam ‘took a pleated skirt out of the lost property box and put it on’ [62] but was reprimanded by his teacher and told that boys and girls wear different clothes.  Most of the time though, Sam’s dressing-up was confined to his bedroom until his mother’s partner Steve found him in a ‘red slip dress and knee-high black stockings’ [171].  Affronted by Sam ‘dressing like a whore’, Steve is determined to make a man of him by severely beating him.  Sam knew then that nothing would ever be alright.

Written in Sam’s voice, Honeybee opens with Sam poised on the Clayton Road overpass ready to leap onto the road below.  Precariously balanced on the edge, he lets go of the railing but is grabbed by Vic – an older man – who has come to the overpass for the same reason.  Sitting on the path a few minutes later, Vic in a truly Australian understatement says to Sam ‘Well, mate, I don’t think it’s our night, do you?’ [4].  At this point though, the reader is unaware of what lies behind Sam’s decision to suicide.  His backstory is gradually revealed as the novel unfolds.  Similarly, as the friendship between Vic and Sam develops, Vic’s backstory is also revealed: his experiences in Vietnam as a National Service conscript, his marriage to Edie, her death, and most significantly, a secret he carried alone from his days in Vietnam.

The backstories of Vic and Sam provide the narrative trajectory towards their accidental meeting on the Clayton Road overpass – and ultimately to their redemption.

In common with the author’s previous book – Jasper Jones – the narrative is structured around secrets and how these secrets rebound on the carriers and their relationships.  It is only when both Vic and Sam are able to share their respective secrets that they can take more positive steps: Sam to begin the process of transitioning to womanhood and Vic to let go of his life as he had always planned to do from the death of Edie ten years before.

Sam’s only friend – at least initially – Aggie captures his true spirit when she describes him as ‘outcast and misunderstood and … stealthy and you keep to the shadows’ [333].  Through devices such as this, the author cleverly sets out the character of Sam and, by extension, his struggles towards becoming the person he has to be.

While some of the situations in which Sam finds himself may at first glance seem unbelievable, the purpose for which the author has devised them is to demonstrate the challenges Sam has to face down to become whom he has always believed himself to be.  The drive towards self-realisation cannot be denied.  The struggle between his self-hate because he was playing at being a boy and denying his true self and his isolation from the community are brilliantly realised by the author.  He also captures the language and attitude of a troubled teenage boy who desperately wants to be accepted by others while at the same time is both expecting and fearing rejection.

Honeybee is a powerful and very moving account of Sam, his troubled relationship with his mother, and his seeking – and ultimately finding – acceptance and himself.   The novel does not provide a fairy-tale ending though – Vic’s death is both painful and heart-wrenching and Sam takes only the first few steps towards a more hopeful future – but it is honest and realistic.

The source of the book’s title Honeybee is best left for the reader to discover towards the end of the book when it is revealed as well as its significance for Sam.

Craig Silvey is an author and screenwriter from Fremantle, Western Australia.  His second novel, Jasper Jones, was released in 2009 and is considered a modern Australian classic. Published in over a dozen territories, Jasper Jones has won plaudits in three continents, including an International Dublin Literary Award shortlisting, a Michael J. Printz Award Honour, and a Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlisting. Jasper Jones was the Australian Book Industry Awards Book of the Year for 2010.

Honeybee

[2020]

by Craig Silvey

Allen and Unwin

ISBN 978 1 76087 722 4

$32.99, 432pp

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