Of Bees and Mist was published in 2009 and is author Erick Setiawan’s first book. Setiawan (b. 1975) graduated from Standford University. This novel was longlisted for 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
…. chronicles three generations of women under one family tree and places them in a mythical town where spirits and spells, witchcraft and demons, and prophets and clairvoyance are an everyday reality. Meridia grows up in a lonely home until she falls in love with Daniel at age sixteen. Soon, they marry, and Meridia can finally escape to live with her charming husband’s family—unaware that they harbor dark mysteries of their own. As Meridia struggles to embrace her life as a young bride, she discovers long-kept secrets about her own past as well as shocking truths about her new family that push her love, courage, and sanity to the brink.
The most surprising element about this book, for me, was that it was written by a male author. I really, still, have a hard time believing it. I guess this surprise makes me seem utterly old-fashioned, jaded, brusque, obsolete, and politically incorrect. Well, I cannot help it – and I am not attempting to offend. The novel is about a “domestic drama.” The main character is a young woman named Meridia, and the majority of characters in the book are indeed women. Women in the book are:
The witchcraft and supernatural elements in the book can be taken in a realist manner or as allegorical or as metaphorical. And it is a marvelous credit to Setiawan that he is able to smoothly work these elements into the story. The title of the book actually includes the most important concepts/metaphors in the book. Yes, this book is about bees and mist. Bees as the vindictiveness, cruelty, and manipulativeness that is the mark of the character named Eva. Eva is the villain in this book, and she is crafted very well. One of the best things about Eva, as a character, is that she is consistent. I think authors sometimes make characters inconsistent under the guise of “development.” Eva’s evil runs through the entire novel and her relationships with other characters are scenes of her force of shrewd cunning. As a reader, I really detested Eva – and that means she was an excellent villain. Beware the bees and the mist!
The heroine, Meridia, is very likable. One cannot help but pity her, cheer for her, or worry for her. We follow Meridia’s growth from a quiet child to her becoming a strong and intelligent young woman. As she ages, the reader is supposed to see how her understanding of her parents and her husband deepens. Instead of becoming bitter, Meridia ends up being the binding force between the rest of the characters. Meridia is also morally blameless – she does the right thing, she holds tight to her courage and her stamina. In this way, this character is a marvelous heroine.
However, my favorite character was Meridia’s mother, Ravenna. I don’t know why, but Ravenna was a fascinating character right from the start of the novel. If I have to hazard a guess, I suspect it was Setiawan’s skilled descriptions of her. For some reason, I was drawn to this character more than the rest. Ravenna is enigmatic, stern, and indomitable and as such, she is a very memorable character. I will probably continue thinking about this character a few books hence. At the end of the book, it is interesting to see that Meridia has learned so much from her mother and yet still traces of Eva (Meridia’s mother-in-law) also have their home in Meridia.
As far as the storyline, I don’t quite know what to say. Overall, from a general perspective, this is a novel about nothing. Or, rather, nothing important. I have found no more apt description than that it is about “domestic drama.” I mean, its about failed marriages, people who have affairs, women who have babies, mothers who dominate their households. (Also, there seem to be an inordinate amount of jewelery stores in the novel, which I found ridiculous.) However, the story itself, while extremely well written, is lacking in something that would make this book a powerhouse novel. In some sense, this novel is a lot like Wuthering Heights. It is a study in people’s influences over those around them and how their gullibility, loyalty, or strength affects their relationships. In a weird way, the good characters overcome their difficulties and win out, but the win does come with some heavy tolls. It is a very well written novel, the language and diction are very smooth and comfortable. It is not too mundane, nor is it too lofty. However, as I read along, I did have this nagging hint at the back of my mind that I was not really reading “anything.”
The ending is good; it wraps up the plot in a satisfying way. While the good characters overcame evil, they did not succumb to revenge and they are able to, finally, recognize the stealthy pits wherein they could follow in the footsteps of their nemeses. The very ending, though, (the last two pages, perhaps) really bothered me because it seemed forced and contrary. I feel that this last act by Meridia in the story was silly and not in keeping with her solidity that she displays in the previous chapters. Still, I guess an argument can be made to say that this act of welcoming by Meridia is what separates her from her mother Ravenna and the wily scheming of her mother-in-law Eva. At the end of the day, I would recommend this book to most readers who can handle books that are not “cheery.” I want to give it four stars for the writing and the characterizations, but the storyline is somewhat lacking in ….. substance.