Sometimes it’s easy to categorize the books we read while other times we’re not sure what we’ve just read. This is not bad—just difficult. The Honey Thief by Elizabeth Graver fell under this indistinctive classification for me but according to Goodreads, it belongs under the genre known as Literary Fiction which umbrellas a range of themes forming thoughts or criticisms reflective of social and/or political issues exploring some aspect of the human condition. Certainly parts of The Honey Thief have this nuance; yet, it doesn’t fully develop and ends up undercutting the characters’ stories and conclusions.
Eleven-year old Eva and her mother Miriam uproot to a small town leaving behind their lives in New York City in hopes of starting somewhere fresh. Miriam wants to move on from the loss of her husband, but she’s also keeping a secret that is the primary reason for her and her daughter moving to the boonies. It’s summer though, which means Eva is left exploring the town by herself until school starts. During one of her days outside, she happens upon some jars filled with honey, which she steals. We’re then introduced to the bee keeper named Burl who’s enamored by bees, and when little Eva comes along; the two of them form a bond.
The structure of the story is worth mentioning for its multifaceted viewpoints. The plot at times is ostensibly stagnant and aimless, and its external environment scarcely influences the story’s trajectory. Like most works of literary fiction, the story occurs internally. Eva wanders around town before meeting the Burl, but it’s not her adventures that we notice but how she internalizes her experiences that give the plot momentum. Otherwise we superficially have Burl the fanatical-bee-loving bee keeper and an eleven-year-old klepto Eva who ends up adopting the same fascination toward bees. These obsession, however, expose the book’s intention to demonstrate people’s need for companionship and studies arbitrary definitions of happiness. In addition to the semi-occurring plot, a bulk of the story is told through a series of flashbacks commenting on the fragility of human intimacy and companionship. The characters anchor the plot from floundering.
Not only are the characters vastly different and generate diverse opinions, it’s the tension shared between them that renders an authentic humanistic portrayal, which I typically expect in literary fiction and what I love about the genre. In trying to understand each other, the characters reveal more about themselves than the person or object they are fixated on. But what makes this disappointing is the disproportional narration. Miriam tells a majority part of the story which contains the scope of her life while Eva and Burl don’t have nearly as much disclosure. Although Eva’s youth doesn’t allow for this, Burl certainly has a handful of experiences that are mentioned but are treated with no merit. By the novel’s conclusion, it’s the mother and daughter relationship that offers the novel’s last words and subsequently snubs Burl out despite the novel’s forthcoming presentation of the plot and of its well-developed characters.
For a lack of better words, the writing is literary meaning it emulates the best and worst qualities innate with being human. The style remains consistently the same amongst each character, which subdues forming individualized voices for them; however, the content contained within the writing makes up for this, which is how the book is able to create such concerning, thought provoking characters.
The novel’s conclusion delays satisfaction by ambiguously resolving the overarching issues—which, I realize, is what most literary works do. Near the conclusion though, the novel takes a drastic turn disheveling the well-established tone and meanings prior. The story shifts from everything happening internally to something externally occurring. The novel imposes on us immediate conflict that is such a sharp contrast to the rest of the novel that it feels like it’s only added to give us some action when it’s not warranted. I’m grateful it doesn’t undermine itself by squarely giving us a finish, but at the same time, it feels incomplete in the way it doesn’t fully develop its characters, or how it discontinues the story after introducing this conflict and propels the story in a new direction. Contrary to most people’s complaints about literary fiction having no plot or having little of it, The Honey Thief certainly exemplifies some of the genre but also subverts some of the literary fiction conventions too.
Rating: 3.8 out of 5