There are moments in life when you let go and allow your unconscious to carry you on its currents. These are the moments when you experience something that you have been faintly aware of but never able to put into words, when you are able to relive that which you have always known but never directly thought. British psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas describes these psychological will-o'-the-wisps as "unthought knowns" and they are what gives the length of a human life its intensity and texture. If they could be described in terms of cloth, they would be velvet. If one were to name an author who writes them, it would be Gail Anderson-Dargatz.
Anderson-Dargatz is a writer who allows you to revel in the unthought knowns of experience, to drift on the swell of the intangible. Those familiar with the landscape of her first novel, A Cure for Death by Lightning, will have experienced her seductive pull. Anderson-Dargatz is fascinated by the attempt to describe the inexplicable. In her first novel, such events are "explained" by the presence of the mysterious force of "Coyote", a hybrid pastiche of White and Native mythologies that enables members of both groups to comprehend what would otherwise remain beyond their grasp. At one and the same time, "Coyote" is the metaphor for the tricks the mind of an adolescent girl plays on her perception of reality; it describes the ways lust can possess people and make them do things they would normally shun; or it can simply explain things that have no other logical explanation-coincidence, accident, fate. Coyote bears one into the realm of the unthought known.
In A Recipe for Bees, Anderson-Dargatz's second novel, which was shortlisted for the 1998 Giller Prize, the mythology continues. Here we are in a world of natural magic, a world in which you can almost believe honeybees might materialize, spontaneously, from the bodies of the dead, even as they are said to carry the souls of deceased beekeepers on their wings. We are also in the vertiginous world of the human mind. In this case, the immersive force of "Coyote" is replaced by the power of precognition. The heroine, Augusta Olsen, like her mother, possesses the capacity for seeing what is to come. Figures from her past periodically pop up where she least expects them; voices from the dead send her cryptic messages, sometimes in the shape of a honeybee. Augusta is psychic. Or is she? Like Beth Weeks, the heroine of A Cure for Death by Lightning, the powers of the imagination play tricks on perception-on both the characters who experience these visions, and on the reader who is seduced by them. Where does the divide between foresight and the unthought known lie? Or are these one and the same thing?
To say too much about the story would be to mar the experience for future readers. This leaves me, as the reviewer, feeling powerless-bitten by the bug but unable to ease the throbbing of its sting. I can only grasp at images, words to make the intangible materialize, if only fleetingly. If I were to apply a colour to this novel, it would be the colour of honey-a deep golden yellow that casts a shadow on the floor like a pool of summer sunlight. The brooch Augusta keeps mysteriously tucked away in her purse has this effect when held up to the light: a bee suspended in amber.
If on the one hand this is the story of a life infused with the pain and joy and embarrassments that snake their way through all human lives, in the hands of as fine a writer as Anderson-Dargatz, there is nothing ordinary about it. The story centres on Augusta Olsen, a woman in old age who, having recently caught sight of her own death on the rattling floor of a railway car as she travels from Victoria to Courtenay, uses the vision to conjure up her past. Related partly through recollection, partly through conversation, Augusta tells of the hardships of her early farm-life in the Shuswap area of British Columbia; of the many Indians who come to work for them; of her desperate marriage to Karl Olsen, son of the anti-social Swede who lives in isolation on a sheep farm; of her flight to Kamloops where she hopes to acquire work and a modicum of independence, but where she ends up meeting the love of her life instead. Finally, it tells of the eventual blossoming of her marriage to Karl, brought to life as if by magic.
This is where the recipe for bees comes in. Taken from a passage in Virgil's Georgics, the "recipe" for bees calls for the carcass of a recently slaughtered animal, a few fresh herbs, and a dose of sunshine. Soon thereafter, the corpse will hum with the sound of wings and one will have whipped up a batch of bees. The real miracle, however, is when this happens to a human life, when something stunted begins to sing, when the unthought becomes known: "occasionally something fermented inside the lifeless carcass of a marriage, something began to stir, limbless at first, then with wings whirring, trying out the thin air, till suddenly, like rain from a summer cloud, it burst out with a force that drove old lovers to do things no one, not even they themselves, thought they were capable of".
In many ways, this novel evokes the classics of Margaret Laurence, resembling a combined version of The Stone Angel and The Diviners. If Augusta, like Hagar Shipley, is dealing with the trials of old age and an unappreciative spouse and child, she is also, like Morag Gunn, a woman of intense passions recalling the loves of her past and the illegitimate daughter that resulted. Over both of these, however, Anderson-Dargatz has imposed another layer-a sheen of honey.
Augusta, like her mother before her, is a beekeeper. More than that, she is a bee lover (literally, too, for her lover, Joe, calls her his "honeybee"). The wealth of detail and sensuous imagery from the world of bees that infuse this novel are mesmerizing and unforgettable. The first line reads, "`Have I told you the drone's penis snaps off during intercourse with the queen bee?'"-and the novel takes off from there into a world of lush, golden memory, of yellow, of scent. From the smell of a man who works in honey ("How could a woman not love a man who smelled that wonderful?"), to the lives of the bees themselves, which, we are meant to believe, parallel those emotional moments that compose a human life. From the mythology of bees (St. Valentine is the patron saint of beekeeping) and their sex lives, through their waggle and joy dances in times of plenty, to the undertaker bees who dispose of the dead. This is a book to set your mind humming.
Like her characters, Anderson-Dargatz is possessed of the capacity to delve into the realm of the unconscious. Even the photographs that are sprinkled throughout the book (photos taken from the writer's own family albums) have the evocative effect of déjà vu. Early in the novel, Augusta has a vision of a man with a honeybee on his lip. The picture confuses her. Is he dead? Or is this a sign of the gift of speech and vision? As one character puts it, "bees were the 'birds of the muses' and could bestow the gift of song or eloquence on a baby simply by landing on that babe's lips". Augusta's mother's honeybees land on the young Augusta's chin and mouth when she eats the ripe peaches in their orchard, transferring the gift of insight from mother to daughter. If bees acquire a totemic significance in this novel, Anderson-Dargatz is blessed with their power. She speaks with a honeybee on her lips.
Cynthia Sugars teaches Canadian Literature at the University of British Columbia and has also conducted a poetic love-affair with the world of insects.