After 11 years of anticipation, the author of popular Australian novel Jasper Jones has returned with a new tale of identity and self. Honeybee follows 14-year-old Sam Watson’s journey towards self-acceptance and becoming confident in their own identity through family struggles and an unlikely friendship with an old man. It is a story of family, grief and longing that takes many dark turns before it even begins to entertain the idea of a happy ending.
The novel begins as Sam stands at the edge of an overpass, ready to fall onto the road beneath them and end it all. It is a captivating and emotional opening scene that definitely yearns for the reader’s attention. The reader is drawn into Sam’s world immediately, wanting to know who they are and what drove them to the overpass. While Sam’s grief is intense, they are persuaded to step down by the interruption of a total stranger: Vic, an old man who is supposedly upset over the death of a dog he hates. Even though they have come to the overpass for the same reason, Sam and Vic find that they can’t let the other do the very same thing they intended to do themselves.
Honeybee is a story of family, grief and longing that takes many dark turns before it even begins to entertain the idea of a happy ending.
Eventually, it is revealed that Sam went to the overpass because they had been humiliated by their family, and could not accept themselves as transgender. It feels strange to learn that Sam is transgender through flashbacks when this is not a story of discovery. Sam’s transgender identity feels like a plot twist, not a character attribute.
This is only reinforced by the lack of the word ‘transgender’ in any of the marketing for Honeybee; the word isn’t even in the book’s blurb. This feels like a big omission given that Sam’s identity as a girl is the main focus of and force behind the story. After all, the novel is not about Sam’s journey of discovering that they are transgender; Sam knows this from the very beginning as they stand at the overpass. Rather, the novel follows Sam’s journey of accepting themselves as transgender.
Craig Silvey has written emotional, heartfelt moments and a rich ensemble of characters, but his novel cannot fill the gap in Australian publishing for trans narratives. At best, he demonstrates that Australia needs more trans stories. But at worst, he takes the space to tell trans stories away from the people that have lived them.
3½ stars out of 5 ★★★☆
Honeybee by Craig Silvey
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Categories: Fiction, Australian
Release Date: 24 September 2020