Review: Honeybee: A world apart from its predecessor10 November 2020
Craig Silvey: Honeybee
Allen & Unwin, 2020
ISBN, 9781760877224, $32.99, pp. 432
Within minutes of starting this book, I realised this was not the Craig Silvey I remembered from Jasper Jones. While some of the themes overlap—innocence, identity, confusion—this book isn’t quite like Jasper. Yet in some ways, Honeybee will be defined by its predecessor, a breakthrough novel that has since become a modern Australian classic.
Jasper was expansive and thoughtful; by contrast, Honeybee is contained and unabashed. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. Honeybee tells the story of Sam, a young person who faces a life of overlapping, specific and complex hardship: her mother’s substance abuse, her stepfather’s violence and brutishness, and her own struggle with her sexual identity. Jasper was subtle and lyrical, set in a “sepia” town and narrated by a book-smart, worldly boy who uses words like “sepia”; by contrast, Honeybee is urban and gritty. It beats you over the head with fast-paced, emotionally-challenging excess narrated by a transgender teenager who is very clearly struggling through a precarious and difficult life.
Honeybee has been described as “uncomfortable”. It contains suicide attempts, self-harm, substance abuse, a queer bashing and instances of domestic violence, all described in earnest detail through Sam’s eyes. It has been pointed out that the story may work just as well even if Sam was cisgender—her story would still be believable, her hardships still authentic and worthy of telling. It is also notable that Silvey is himself cisgender. Though he seems to have consulted extensively with the trans community—as demonstrated in the novel’s acknowledgements—one still does question how this impacts the story, and the example it sets for future representation. These discomforts are important to recognise and sit with.
However, Honeybee still reflects Silvey’s high calibre of storytelling. Its voice is forthcoming yet credible, and its characters are thoughtful and well-placed. Sam is charming, and any reader would be able to understand and sympathise with her experiences. Her gender dysphoria, for example, is presented in layman’s terms: “In my heart I understood. I typed: can a girl be born as a boy? Everything made sense and nothing made sense at the same time.” This is important given that Honeybee’s audience is likely to include young, cisgender readers—its themes are broadly youth-oriented despite the difficulty of some of its content, and it is a YA book after all. Many of its readers might not yet have the language to describe or understand this particular experience; Silvey thus renders it accessible, and as an established author this may be the stepping stone people need to really delve into the existing trans canon.
Beyond gender dysphoria though, Sam’s other experiences as a young person are still just as endearing: her nervousness during (and motivation for) attempting to rob a bank is a particularly great example that also injects some well-needed humour into the story.
Then, Silvey enriches Sam’s characterisation with equally compelling and developed foils. On the one hand, Aggie is Sam’s exuberant and verbacious middle-class neighbour, and she clearly demonstrates the importance of a supportive family, whether or not it’s a traditional one—thanks to them, Aggie never feels any need to shrink herself, and this is who Sam might have been in another life. Conversely, Peter is a confident, assured nurse who introduces Sam to therapist Diane, and these two characters are role models, showing Sam that she can still be that person in this life. Peter and Diane are both queer adults who, having been through the adolescent identity struggle and ‘made it’, now extend their guidance and mentorship to Sam—I don’t know if this is a relationship we really see a lot of these days.
In many ways however, the novel is held together by Vic and Edie—and in many ways, they convey the novel’s central message of kindness. Each of them provide for Sam in different ways, not least because Edie is dead, but their role in nurturing this child, this stranger, becomes an invaluable part of her growth.
At the end of the day, whether or not Sam is trans, her story illustrates how important it is to have family in whatever form—both people who care for you and treat your needs as their own, as well as people whom you can look up to and aspire to be. They might not be your biological parent—indeed Sam’s is imperfect, try as she might—but they are important people to have in your life nonetheless.
In this sense, Honeybee is a story about unlikely similarities rather than biological ties or simple differences in identity. And even though it’s also a story about young people, and one that is expectedly well-written in Silvey’s hands, it is a world apart from its predecessor. Time will tell if it lives up to that.