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A Recipe for Bees

by Gail Anderson-Dargatz

It’s a true storyteller who can build a compelling tale from the 48-year marriage between a psychic beekeeper and a mild-mannered farmer in rural B.C. Gail Anderson-Dargatz is up to the challenge with a suspensefully structured, gracefully told, entertaining novel.

The Alberta-based writer’s strikingly successful debut, The Cure for Death by Lightning, followed an adolescent girl’s difficult coming-of-age on a B.C. farm during the Second World War. This novel centres on the loneliness of farm life in the postwar period, as recalled by now-elderly Augusta Olsen. But Anderson-Dargatz invites readers to see beyond the commonplace surfaces of her characters’ lives. As with the beehives that are a central motif in her new novel, close attention reveals a complex and sophisticated private world of behaviour, ritual, and communication.

Ensconced in her tiny senior citizen’s apartment with husband Karl, Augusta remains witty and engaging although, physically, she’s arthritic and dependent on Depends. Her age renders her invisible to the younger generation, and an irritation to her adult daughter, Joy. Passing the long hours during her beloved son-in-law’s brain operation, Augusta considers her own mortality and her life, touching on everything from the wonders of beekeeping to the sorrows of having second sight.

All this could be tepid, folksy material, but Anderson-Dargatz’s prose has a subversive quality that renders people in three sharp dimensions. For instance, just as the younger Augusta is in danger of becoming that all-purpose CanLit figure – the oppressed and isolated farm woman seeking romance because of her husband’s emotional neglect – Anderson-Dargatz deepens the scenario by suggesting Augusta’s lack of maturity and husband Karl’s hidden resources. None of these shifts and revelations ultimately cancel out the past, however: the result is an irregularly textured yet entirely believable portrait of an imperfect adult relationship.

As with her first novel, Anderson-Dargatz’s domestically centred, psychological subject matter moves beyond the realm of kitchen-sink realism. It’s a commendable impulse, but one the author has not quite perfected: Augusta’s prescient dreams and visions seem conventional in a way that her observations and humour are not. But this is a minor distraction, given the confident, nuanced writing in A Recipe for Bees.