Apparently lots of great books are going to published in May, and my bookstore has been overflowing with new advance readers copies for us booksellers to snatch up. I grabbed The Honey Farm after a glance at the gorgeous cover and a quick skim of the advance praise on the back cover, with many lauding this debut book as “unnerving,” “mesmerizing,” and “chills-inducing.” All these statements are true and then some.
I don’t usually pick up books like this, and that is because I am a grade A weenie who tends to avoid books that might fall into the psychological thriller and suspense categories. However, I’d been meaning to expand my reading horizons, and there’s a lot to be said for learning about craft by reading genres out of your comfort zone. Did I learn a lot? Probably. Do I know what I learned exactly? Um, I’m still reeling a little bit, so I’ll get back to you on that.
Harriet Alida Lye’s The Honey Farm takes place during a drought on a honey farm in Canada. To make ends meet, the owner, Cynthia, decides to hold an artists’ retreat on the farm, offering free room and board to artists looking to escape city life to work on their projects in exchange for their help working the farm. The novel follows two young artists, Silvia, a recent graduate and self-declared poet who’s itching to escape the scrutiny of her extremely Christian parents, and Ibrahim, a prolific painter who has yet to try to sell any of his work, as they join the retreat and settle into life on the farm. As they get to know the other artists and settle into routine on the farm, it becomes slowly apparent that all is not what it seems on this beautiful farm teeming with the buzz of life.
Let me just start by saying that this novel is, on a technical level, gorgeous. The prose sings, and I was enraptured from the very first page, which starts like this:
“Listen. It starts with the bees. All day long the low, throttling hum of movement, the moment of liftoff—the bass note that never goes away.”
The prose swells into the most magical and unsettling preface I’ve read in a long time. I was immediately hooked, and simultaneously thinking, “Okay, who do I have to sell my soul to to write prose like this?” The whole novel does that. The landscape is lush, menacing, alive, like a character itself. You won’t be disappointed.
The way Lye structures the novel is just as compelling. Each chapter or so shifts perspectives between Silvia and Ibrahim, showing the reader two very different interpretations of what’s going on at the farm. The division of the novel into two parts works to split the novel’s buildup effectively, and Lye’s use of dreams and biblical references are so chilling, and really show the psychological fragmentation of one particular character I will not name, as well as confusing the reader about what’s actually going on until the shock of the ending.
I have mixed feelings about the characters, which mostly works great in this case, because it means I see them as complex human beings. Ibrahim is an endearing character, though not all of his choices are the right ones. Silvia’s struggles are so relatable to me, in that I am also a young writer who suffers from imposter syndrome and struggles to shape my own path. Hartford, Cynthia’s assistant, feels like a very elusive character who has a lot to unpack, and I wish the story offered a little more insight into him and what his past holds. The other artists are all interesting individuals who I enjoy spending time with throughout the novel, though they don’t by any means overpower Silvia and Ibrahim as the protagonists.
Cynthia is where a lot of my conflicted feelings stem from, and it’s hard to talk about why without giving a lot away. Suffice to say, I wish that more writers would write queer characters who haven’t been marked by tragedy or loss, or are cast as antagonists. I don’t think I would have felt this as strongly if there had been other queer characters with different types of backstory, but given the ending…I’m not sure what I feel about her. I’m interested to know what other LGBT people will think of Cynthia’s characterization when this book hits the shelves. She is certainly a captivating character, but I find it difficult to empathize with her because we never see her perspective, and must instead try to understand her motivations through Ibrahim and Silvia's observations.
As for my overall reaction to The Honey Farm, I admit that I wasn’t happy when I finished the book. That doesn’t mean the ending wasn’t good, or that there aren’t spots of brightness and beauty in the story—there certainly are those moments. This book was simply difficult for me to read, especially because I ended up liking these characters so much, and silly optimist that I am, I hoped for a different ending, even though I knew it was unlikely. But man, I was impressed by this book. I’m still blown away by the amount of thematic foreshadowing and metaphor that went into so many scenes (seriously, I keep thinking about this book and having more “Aha!” moments). This book kept me riveted, and I’m grateful that I gave it a try.
So, if you love mystery, thrillers & suspense, or psychological horror, I absolutely recommend giving this book a read. And hey, even if you are a weenie like me, you might find yourself loving it anyway!
The Honey Farm will be published on May 29 by Liveright. Preorders available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
Writer, reviewer, bookseller, book nerd extraordinaire. Fiction reader at Waxwing Magazine.