It’s hard to define Mad Honey by Katie Welch in terms of genre; we begin with a literary novel steeped in family history and resentment, slowly move into the territory of a mystery, and end up in the world of a thriller. Despite these leaps, the plotting is well done and I couldn’t read this one fast enough. It will surprise you, that I can guarantee.
Melissa Makepeace has lived on her family’s farm all her life. She is now in her twenties, running the farm herself while her mother is away on an extended ‘soul-searching’ trip down south. The farm is home to a few people; Melissa’s foster sister Daphne, the grouchy farmhand Joseph, and Beck, the neighbor who helps keep the bees and has begun a romantic relationship with Melissa. The book opens with Beck returning to the farm; he disappeared without a trace for three months, and upon his return tells Melissa he’s been in a bee hive. He truly believes this, with vivid memories of helping the Queen Bee. Physically he is emaciated, and addicted to honey – it’s one of the only foods he can keep in his stomach. Melissa is upset with Beck’s strange absence, but more worried about his health and desperate for help with harvest season so she invites him back to stay at the farm and they resume their relationship. Melissa also struggles with another mystery in her life; when she was young, her father Charlie also disappeared without a trace, her mother convinced he simply abandoned his family, but Melissa won’t give up hope he will return someday.
Even though this a plot-driven novel, the writing is that of a work of literary fiction that has no where to go quickly. The descriptions of life on the farm are abundant, the natural world steering the characters around as they do on a regular farm. Weather, the shifting of the seasons, and the development of the crops push the story along, and the characters are helpless to resist. Even the metaphors and descriptions are influenced by the farming environment:
“It bothered Melissa that memories of her father were fading, colour draining from them like newspaper mulch between rows of onion spikes.”-p.14 of Mad Honey by Katie Welch, Advanced Reading Copy
These two mysterious disappearances; Beck’s and Charlie’s, weighs heavily over the book, suggesting a supernatural influence may be at work. Although Beck returns, it’s hard not to draw parallels between the two men. The women in this book are the reliable ones; they stick around, run the farm, do the dirty and heavy lifting, and generally get things done. The men are temperamental, subject to silly whims, obsessed with their own hobbies and unreliable. In fact, it’s the male characters, even Beck’s father and a random doctor figure that comes into their lives, that pursues their own passions; photography, biking, cross country skiing. It’s almost like men are given the space to become fully-rounded people, while women are left picking up the pieces after them.
What I enjoyed most about this book was the dissection of our relationships with one another; our relationship to the land, to our siblings, to our parents, and to those we fall in love with. At what point do we let go? How far does one need to be pushed before they throw up their hands and abandon the other? Do our obligations to our parents and children change as we grow older? The simplicity of the relationships in a bee hive are a stark contrast to the swirling activity outside the hive on this farm, which makes for great writing, and an even better story.