Title: The Honey Farm
Author: Harriet Alida Lye
Published: April 16th 2018
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary, Psychological, Mystery, Suspense
Rating: 3.5 stars
The bees are restless.
After a long drought, Cynthia’s isolated honey farm has suffered in the heat. Soil dries into sand; honeycomb stiffens into wax. But she has a plan: offer the farm as an artists’ colony with free board and ‘life experience’ in exchange for a summer of hard labour. For Silvia, a recent graduate and would-be poet, the chance to test her independence proves irresistible – as does Ibrahim, a passionate painter she meets there.
But the honey farm isn’t all it seems. The idyllic summer is soon plagued by ominous events: taps run red, scalps itch with lice, frogs swarm the pond. The constant drone of bees begins to build like thunder in the air.
One by one the other residents leave, until only Silvia and Ibrahim remain – perilously in love under Cynthia’s watchful eye. And as summer shifts into autumn, Silvia becomes increasingly paranoid that they are in danger. What are the shadowy secrets that Cynthia is hiding? And if Silvia and Ibrahim have overstayed their welcome, what happens when they want to leave?
The Honey Farm, penned by Canadian debut novelist Harriet Alida Lye, is a lyrical story with a strong line of mystery. With a shroud of unsettling menace underpinning the novel throughout, The Honey Farm explores the art of beekeeping, love, obsession and possession in the one evocative novel.
The Honey Farm revolves around struggling Ontario based farm owner Cynthia. In drought stricken times, Cynthia is desperate to reap the rewards of her honey farm. She decides to open her farm and home to artists, looking for a creative haven. The catch is, these artists must earn their keep on the farm, Cynthia will provide a home in exchange for manual labour around the farm. The offer attracts a small group of artists, among them, Silvia, a college grad and an aspiring poet, looking to escape the strict clutches of her fiercely Christian parents. Another of these artists is talented painter Ibrahim, a young man who quickly finds himself attracted to Silvia. Once the artists have settled into the daily life of the honey farm, one by one they leave, each unsettled by the farm itself and the eccentric owner, Cynthia. Then strange occurrences arise on the farm, each more menacing as the other. These odd situations range from red blood water running through the taps, to plagues of frogs and combined with the constant buzz of the bees on the farm, it is enough to send any sane person off kilter. Coupled with the isolation of the farm itself, eventually only two artists are left of the farm, Silvia and Ibrahim. With Cynthia keeping tabs on this couple constantly and displaying an unhealthy attachment to Silvia, a lunacy begins to form in Silvia’s mind. Silvia and Ibrahim find it hard to gauge just how dangerous Cynthia is and what her motivations are for keeping the couple on the farm, despite the bee season coming to a close. When the couple begin to make plans to exit the farm, it presents a challenge to this young couple.
The art of beekeeping and it is an art, has always fascinated me greatly. The opulent sunflower filled cover and the premise of The Honey Farm quickly drew my attention. I was very keen to delve into the pages of this debut psychological mystery and learn a thing or two about the world of beekeeping. For the most part this book delivered, especially in providing me with a comprehensive overview of taking care of and harvesting bees for the production of honey. However, there is a big drawback to this novel, which I will outline later in my review.
The setting of The Honey Farm is by far one of its strengths and despite my obvious reservations about part of this novel, it does have it positive points. I do not recall reading many novels previously set in Canada, so this setting was original and very refreshing to follow. I enjoyed being transported to the isolated Canadian farm, seeped deep in drought. Lye activated all my senses in the setting based descriptions; she is a very visual writer, which helped me connect with the text. I was impressed by the imagery and rich lyrical prose that worked to illuminate the honey farm setting. It was a highlight of this fertile debut.
Lye knows a thing or two about the business of beekeeping and the behaviour of bees themselves. Her dedication to her main subject matter was impressive to say the least. I expected to learn a few passing facts about bees, but instead, I received an excellent and well informed lesson on the employ of beekeeping, as well as the unique characteristics of these insects. It so fascinating and I did not feel dragged down at all by the dryness of facts presented by the author. Lye expertly wove her detailed understanding of bees and was able to sew these around her compelling narrative.
There are some strong themes that come with the process of reading The Honey Farm. There was also an immediate cult like feel that to this novel and the overall set up of the honey farm. Cynthia obviously wanted to be revered as the queen bee of her own hive, with the artists she employed, placing them into her role of worker bees. This is where The Honey Farm reminds me very much of the book and film, The Beach by Alex Garland. The Honey Farm is a Garden of Eden paradise, offering an alternative way of living, with virtually no contact with the outside world.
As the book is titled The Honey Farm, it is obvious that the central crux of the novel is based on beekeeping, which is used to full effect within the novel. In addition, there is a good exploration of farming, the art world, poetry, painting, nature and religion. There are also biblical references that float through the heart of this text, with inclusions of verses within the novel. I think these worked well and suited the overall direction of the novel. There are also echoes to biblical plagues and these calamities are enacted in the novel to great effect. These segments of the novel definitely add to the puzzle of the overall narrative. I personally directed my suspicions at Cynthia and grew deeply unsure of her motivations, especially in her desire to force feed the occupants of the honey farm milk. I think this is where the source of the problems in the novel, especially for poor Silvia. I may be wrong in my assumptions though.
Lye’s characterisation is rich and faultless. Her presentation of the whole character set in this novel is generous and detailed. Cynthia, the farm owner and lead, remains quite the enigma for the whole of the novel and I believe this shroud of mystery worked well to draw the reader further into the novel. I felt a strong sense of unease whenever Cynthia appeared on the pages of the book and it riled somewhat that I could never put my finger on her motivations. Her offsider, Hartford, is a gentle character, but very little is revealed about his character too. The artist group that forms and then leaves, save for two, is well represented by Lye. Likewise, the concerned parents of the leads, Silvia and Ibrahim, play an important role in the overall proceedings of the novel. The leads, poet Silvia and Ibrahim the painter, are worthy primary protagonists. Silvia’s naivety pressed on me at times and despite the fact that I feel the storyline directed the reader to doubt Silvia, I rooted for her triumph over her impossible situation. Ibrahim was a low and impressionable man with an unfortunate attitude to match. Despite these characters getting under my skin, by the final moments of the novel I found myself deeply concerned for their welfare.
So that brings me to the downfall of The Honey Farm and it is an aspect of the novel that I feel I would be remiss in not mentioning. I find it fortunate that I was forewarned about the negative drawback of this novel and despite this, I tried my very hardest to keep my judgement clear. When I reached that final destination of the novel, I had to do a double take. I flipped back a few pages re-read them and shook my head. The Honey Farm is a book that comes to an abrupt close. Generally, I am not a fan of open endings but I feel The Honey Farm did not end in the right place at all. It is hard to draw any kind of personal conclusion to the final fate of the characters and these were characters I become very concerned about. So, if you don’t like plot holes and unexplained endings, The Honey Farm is one book that may not be worth investing your energy in. I’m sitting on the fence with this one and awarding it a 3 and half star rating, mainly based on my appreciation of the notable prose.
The Honey Farm by Harriet Alida Lye was published on April 16th 2018 by Penguin Books Australia. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of The Honey Farm, Harriet Alida Lye visit here.
*I wish to thank Penguin Books Australia for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.