Book review: In Praise of the Bees

ON a quiet back-road in 6th century south-west Munster, a farmer and his son stumble upon the brutally beaten body of an unconscious young woman. 

Book review: In Praise of the Bees

Kristin Gleeson

An Tig Beag Press, £8.99; Kindle, £1.99

Not knowing what else to do, they carry their unfortunate find to a nearby nunnery and deposit her into the care of Máthair Gobnait, “the holy woman of the bees” who is gaining considerable renown as a healer.

The young woman’s injuries are severe: broken arms, legs and fingers; a stab wound to the side; and, worst of all, a blow to the head that has brought on almost total amnesia.

With the love and care shown by the nuns, her injuries heal slowly, but her lack of memory remains a serious problem.

Needing to call her something, they name her Áine, and over a period of weeks and months, she becomes absorbed into this new life.

With a gentle soul named Siúr Sodelb, she forges a tight bond of friendship and awakens a rare gift for music; and under the constant guidance of Máthair Gobnait, she discovers the majesty of bees in their hive and — in time and through a bee-inspired song that she composes — the way to God.

But the trauma of her beating has made her terrified of the world beyond her immediate surround.

This reaches breaking point when Gobnait is summoned to give healing to a son of a local chieftain, and Áine is chosen to assist.

Because the patient’s condition is too far advanced, there is little, unfortunately, to be done, apart from helping ease his pain, but over the following days they get to know the dying man’s brother, Colmán, and his unhappy wife, Bruineach.

Colmán, an expert in law, is clearly taken with Áine, and on hearing her story resolves to find out who she is really is.

The answer to that, though, when it is eventually discovered, only raises further questions.

It seems that Áine is actually Cuimne, daughter to a recently killed king. Diarmait, her beloved brother, has also been slain, and a cousin, Ailill has taken the throne.

With her memory finally returning, and under the protection of Colmán, she sets out for her home place. Certain that she can count on the loyal support of Diarmait’s foster-brother, Óengus, an impetuous warrior that she’d once hoped to marry, she is determined to discover the truth behind her recent tragedies. But she soon discovers that surfaces are not always as they seem.

Kristin Gleeson, a native of Philadelphia now living in the West Cork Gaeltacht, has written a fascinating novel that gives a real sense of life as it might have been during one of the most turbulent periods in Irish history, when Christianity was gaining its first tenuous foothold in a land shaped and defined by its ancient pagan past.

There is evidence here of meticulous research, and it is difficult not to be impressed by how the author manages to blend fiction with legend, keeping faithful to the stories surrounding St Gobnait but building a narrative against these given details, one that spins off in its own intriguing directions.

The characterisations are nicely handled, though the reader is required to persevere a little at times, as one or two of the main players — particularly Lassar, mother of the new king — take a while to find their third dimension.

And even when, on occasion, the plot veers perilously close to melodrama, Miss Gleeson’s natural storytelling guile and clear, functional prose keeps the focus intact.

Ultimately, this is a fascinating story, one that not only shines a light on an often overlooked period of Ireland’s past but also meditates on such fundamental facts of life as identity, family loyalty, love, faith and justice.

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