- Honeybee, by Craig Silvey. Allen & Unwin, $32.99.
In 2009, Western Australian author Craig Silvey made a big splash on the Australian literary scene with his young adult novel Jasper Jones. A crossover book, it was shortlisted for both the Miles Franklin Award and the International Dublin Literary Award, and was adapted for both stage and screen.
There are many parallels between Jasper Jones and Silvey's latest fiction title, Honeybee. They are both gripping, character-based novels with troubled young souls at their heart, although in the case of Honeybee, the eponymous main character is the narrator of the story. Like Jasper Jones, Sam Watson - affectionately called "Honeybee" by his mother - is a traumatised teenager barely surviving in a dysfunctional family.
As in Jasper Jones, subsidiary characters in Honeybee include an intellectual, mixed-race teenager with a self-deprecating sense of humour, and a reclusive old man with a troubled past and an uncertain future. However, like Jasper Jones, Honeybee is not just a coming-of-age tale for teenagers. It's a raw and challenging novel with adult themes, and it comes with a number of trigger warnings.
For example, the opening scene features not one but two attempted suicides. Demoralised and distressed, Sam stands on the wrong side of the railings on a highway overpass. At the other end, a desperately lonely old man named Vic smokes what he intends to be his last cigarette. This traumatic but fortunate encounter leads to an at times exquisitely tender relationship that is a pivotal part of this intriguing novel.
Silvey uses the term "chaotic good" to describe the actions of his main character. Beautiful, fragile, tenacious and talented, Sam will stay with the reader long after the turning of the last page. As Vic and Sam's lives intertwine, Silvey gradually reveals each character's backstory through flashbacks and diary entries, showing what brought each of them to the subway overpass seeking oblivion.
Vic's story is one of a life seemingly well lived, with a much-adored wife whose passing has seemingly led him to this extremity. However, like all well-rounded characters, there is more to the straightforward but empathetic Vic than meets the eye, including a failed business and a traumatic experience during the Vietnam War.
Sam's short but turbulent life, on the other hand, is sometimes difficult to read about. A dysfunctional mother, an absent father, a violent "step-father", bullying at school, self-harm, sexual abuse, suicidal tendencies - all are dealt with in an uncompromising but insightful way.
Unlike similar novels with teenage main characters from difficult backgrounds - including Trent Dalton's seminal Boy Swallows Universe - the negative people in Sam's young life have few redeeming features, including Sam's mother, who he continues to love despite her obvious flaws and ongoing neglect. Sam hangs on desperately to a few "positive" childhood memories, including the shoplifting skills she gifted him - an essential tool for a teenage runaway.
The macho petty criminals in Sam's life, especially the manipulative Steve, make it even more difficult for him to come to terms with something that even a child in a supportive family environment would find challenging - gender dysphoria. It's a central part of who Sam is, and in his private life he embraces it, dressing up in his mother's clothes, experimenting with make-up and, from a young age, teaching himself to be a gourmet cook by watching celebrity chef Julia Child's YouTube videos while his mother is out till all hours getting hammered. Given his upbringing, there is no possibility that Sam can open up about who he really is until he meets Vic. But it is not an easy road to redemption and self-acceptance.
And then there's a nurse called Peter, aka "Fella Bitzgerald", a drag queen with a stunning voice who takes Sam under his fabulously feathered wings. Silvey has obviously extensively researched both gender dysphoria and the drag queen scene, and his representations of both are sympathetic and empowering. But it is steadfast Vic and his dead wife Edie - through her diaries and well-stocked, fashionable wardrobe - who are central to providing the stability and normality that will hopefully enable Sam to accept who he is.
While Honeybee is sometimes an uncomfortable read, it's easy to become invested in the vulnerable and endearing main character and to be carried along by the fervent hope that eventually he will prevail. In the end, Silvey's crisp dialogue, engaging characters, unexpected plot twists and the implied promise of a satisfying ending ensure that this emotional roller-coaster ride of a book is a journey that is more than worth the taking.
- Stephanie Owen Reeder is a Canberra author and reviewer. Her latest book is Australia's Wild Weird Wonderful Weather, illustrated by Tania McCartney.