Harriet Alida Lye says shes not a religious person but it was a quote from the Bible that planted the seed of a story.
Go up to this land that flows with milk and honey.
But I will not travel among you, for you are a stubborn and rebellious people.
If I did, I would surely destroy you along the way. Exodus 33:3
“I had this story in my head about this farm, the land of milk and honey, but then I started to think about the second half of the verse, who would this person be who would destroy them,” says Lye.
Lye's debut novel The Honey Farm is a menacing story, seductive and dark. Set in a remote, drought-affected part of Ontario, Canada, farm owner Cynthia opens her doors to a group of artists who are happy to work the bees in return for free accomodation and time to work on their art. Two of the artists Silvia and Ibrahim embrace the idea, and eventually each other, but everything is not what it seems.
The farm is plagued by events: water runs red, frogs swarm, scalps itch with lice. For Silvia, whos questioning her strict Catholic upbringing, the signs are ominous.
“It all seems so blissful but something is off,” says Lye, “thats just the tone I was aiming for.
“One book which has stuck with me is Kazuo Ishiguros Never Let Me Go. Theres this thrum of mystery about it that you cant quite explain.
“I remember reading that book, reading it walking up the stairs, walking to the bus, I never put it down, I was so scared all the time.
“I like that kind of subtle unnerving feeling, like something bad is going to happen but I'm not quite sure what.”
Lye grew up in suburban Toronto to British parents but the family spent a lot of time in the countryside.
“My mother actually worked for the Canadian Honey Council for a while and wed visit farms and the beekeepers, sample the honey and see the hives,” says Lye.
“Bees lend themselves naturally to metaphor and allegory. You just have to say a fact about bees and you instantly start thinking about how that might apply to human interactions.
“There's a line in the book where Cynthia is teaching Silvia how to requeen the hive and she says You can't have two queens at once and that line is a metaphor for the whole book really.”
That line has also been picked out as the tag for the film. Canadian production company Hawkeye Pictures acquired the film rights in April and a feature film has been optioned. Lyes keen to ask who I think might be cast.
When I suggest Cynthia has to be Nicole Kidman, the Nicole Kidman from Sofia Coppolas The Beguiled, another story with an undercurrent of menace, she likes the idea. That's the feel this story has too.
Ah, Cynthia. While the story is told through the alternating voices of Silvia and Ibrahim, its Cynthia that rules the hive, so to speak.
“Cynthias intentions remained a mystery to me which is why I never entered her head,” says Lye.
“Shes motivated by this need for power, over the farm, over people.
“But then Silvia is motivated by power too, or her lack of it, shes frustrated by the lack of power she has over herself, over her writing.
“The book's very much about Silvias struggle with her identity … and for me the psychological collapse of Silvia comes from this.”
Lye started writing creatively in high school. As a 15 year old she was diagnosed with a never-before-seen combination of two strains of leukemia. Doctors told her parents she was unlikely to survive. She used writing as a way of dealing with her illness, writing about it and her time in hospital.
“I was more interested in the sounds of words and feelings,” she says. “Not poetry as such but verse which was quite dense and imaganistic and rhythmic.
“I was interested in how words could create that experience.”
She went to the University of Kings in Halifax, part of their renowned Foundation Year Program, where “if for example, we were learning about Plato, we would read Plato and not textbooks about Plato”. In her third year she went to Paris to study and one of her teachers changed the way she thought about her own creative process.
“He said you are a writer, you just have to keep writing. It was like he gave me permission to perceive myself that way. I was spending time with artists, writers, booksellers, painters, people who found a way to make a living creatively and thats when I really started writing.”
The Honey Farm, by Harriet Alida Lye, Michael Joseph, $32.99.
Karen Hardy is a reporter at The Canberra Times.
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