Simon and Schuster, 2009
Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism
My Rating: 4 stars (Add to Your TBR List)
Of Bees and Mist takes place in a world that is like ours but not quite. In this world that is betwixt and between, we come to know Meridia—a lonely girl who grows up in a freezing cold house with a staircase that takes on different forms, a stern and distant father who vanishes and reappears in mists, and a loving but absent-minded mother who speaks her own secret language. Meridia struggles to understand the coldness of the house and the odd relationship between her parents. A recurring dream seems to hold the key—but whenever she is on the brink of discovering the meaning of the dream, the mists, and her parents’ behavior, something prevents her from learning the truth.
One day, Meridia attends a local fair filled with spiritualists and seers. Just 16, she finds herself drawn to a handsome young man named Daniel. When fate seemingly brings them together, Meridia is overjoyed to find a way out of her lonely life. Daniel’s family seems to have everything Meridia has been searching for—including a beautiful and involved matriarch, Eva. Although Daniel and Meridia’s romance face some stumbling blocks, they eventually marry. After the wedding, Meridia begins to realize that her new home might not be as wonderful as she thought. It starts with missing wedding presents and slowly escalates as Eva methodically assets control over Meridia and her life.
But Meridia’s mother has taught her to be strong, and when Meridia begins to assert herself, Eva finds she has met her match. As tensions escalate and the war between Eva and Meridia worms its way into the next generation, each woman uses all her considerable skills and magic to defeat the other—uncovering long-buried family secrets and almost destroying each other in the process.
This book has such a different feel that it is hard to describe the sense of familiarity and strangeness you get while reading. Setiawan never really defines the world where Meridia is living—it seems similar to ours yet is filled with magic, witchcraft and strange beings. This is a world where the evil mother-in-law gets her way by sending out a swarm of buzzing bees to fill her victim’s head with malicious and destructive thoughts. A world where a husband might turn out to be a demon, and swarms of fireflies can extract vengeance for a wronged party. Yet although conflicts may be fought with magic and spells and the scent of verbena, the characters are dealing with very human issues—adultery, betrayal, cruelty, frigidity, and competition. I think if Setiawan had chosen to tell his story in a more conventional way, it would feel utterly familiar—a husband seeks solace in a mistress when his wife turns frigid, a new marriage is threatened by competition between wife and mother-in-law, a son who sides with his mother against his father. Yet the book becomes more than a “domestic drama” by the author’s choice to set the drama in such a strange and fantastical environment.
In some ways, Of Bees and Mist feels a bit like a fairy tale. Yet, at the same time, the magic aspect is treated as commonplace and ordinary. I suppose that makes it “magical realism”—along the lines of books like Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic or even John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things. If you enjoy these “of our world but not quite” books, Of Bees and Mist would be quite a treat. In the end, I found it to be an involving domestic drama where conflict was settled with bees, mist, fireflies and moments of pure magic.
About The Author
Erick Setiawan was born in 1975 in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents. A quiet, shy child, he was thankfully raised in a family of gifted storytellers, who taught him that while life might have an endless supply of conflict, not all of it translates into a good story. Due to the anti-Chinese sentiment prevalent in Indonesia, his childhood was often fraught with tension, which prompted him to take comfort in books and in the world of his imagination. To traumatize him further, his parents sent him to Catholic schools, where he learned from an early age to feel guilty about everything and that a grown man in a sash and a swishing robe with a ruler in his hand was in no way maternal.
At age sixteen, he left his family and moved to the United States. In college, he wanted to study English, but his shyness and insecurity about his adopted language prevented him from enrolling in classes that required him to speak. Instead, he chose to major in Psychology and Computer Science, going as far as getting a Master’s in the latter. Bafflingly enough, studying about mental disorders and complex algorithms only increased his hunger for literature. Once too often, he shuffled aside his term papers and problem sets to lose himself in a novel.
After graduation, he began his tenure as a software engineer in San Francisco. By the end of the first year, he knew that his heart was not in it. Confronted with the risk of being a corporate burnout at twenty-six, he turned to writing in his spare time. To the exasperation of his bosses, he began coming to work late and taking longer and longer lunch breaks to write. Several years, two failed novels, and countless short stories later, he decided to quit his job to finish writing Of Bees and Mist. At the time, he had no book deal and knew no one in publishing, but he pursued his passion with the same stubborn resolution/delusion that had motivated him earlier. He sold Of Bees and Mist four years after he started it.
The Whys and Wheres
Thank you to Trish at TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to be a part of the blog tour for this book. You can find the other tour stops by clicking here. Thanks also to Simon and Schuster for my review copy of the book. It is always a pleasure to be offered a book for review, but when the book was already on your wish list due a review you read somewhere but now can’t remember where, it is even more delightful.