Harriet Alida Lye is a writer from Richmond Hill, Ontario. Now living in Toronto, she works at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. The Honey Farm is her first novel. (Note: this review is based on an Advance Reading Copy supplied by the publisher.
If you like novels that have:
- Old Testament references and symbolism
- a sweet love story
- characters with a certain mystique about them
- idyllic and remote setting
- strange occurrences
If you answered “yes” to some or all of the above, then you will enjoy The Honey Farm (2018, Vagrant Press). Set near Smooth Rock Falls in Northern Ontario, The Honey Farm is a delightful and mistily enigmatic story that progresses over the course of a drought-stricken year on a small honey farm. The farm itself is owned by Cynthia and the sole permanent worker there is a local man named Hartford. To help with the harvesting of the honey and the maintenance of the farm itself, Cynthia posts an advertisement promoting the farm as an “artists retreat” where, in exchange for their labour, they will get free room & board. In their free time, they can practice their art in quiet, peaceful surroundings.
The Honey Farm:
Free retreat for artists, writers, thinkers!
Can’t work in the city?
Come to the Artist’s Colony and
also learn how to keep bees!
Start early May.
One person who responds is Silvia, a Dalhousie student who has finished her studies (she majored in History, but would like to be a writer) and is unsure of her future.
Though she’s been finished with classes for what feels like an age, it’s only late April, and public schools are in the full swing of their final term. In the late afternoons, as Silvia lies in bed in a paralysis of what to become, time extending before her like an eternal diving board, she hears the cries of children playing during recess in the schoolyard on her block; they seem to have no problem at all with the fluidity of being and becoming.
Silvia sees the ad while visiting one of her favourite book blogs.
Like most, she doesn’t consider herself to be the type of person who normally clicks on online ads, but this one feels different: it seems too simple to be manipulative. But mainly, she has a problem and this is the solution. She clicks the link.
Silvia knows that to grow as a person and as a writer, she needs to leave her devoutly religious helicopter parents (she is an only child as well) and become something.
Another who sees the advertisement is Ibrahim, a young artist who lives in Toronto. He spots it in, of all places, an announcement board in Union Station. Unlike Silvia, Ibrahim has no real need to leave Toronto and his family there, for he is free to practice his art (although he has never shown it to anyone). He just thinks that Spring on a honey farm would be nice.
Initially, there are twelve who respond to Cynthia’s ad, but some leave after the first night; others later on as they find conditions on the farm not what they expected. They discover that there is more work than spare time to be “artists.” Silvia, who has yet to write a single word although she wants to, and Ibrahim, who continues to paint furiously, gradually fall in love, and the process and progression of the feelings of each are sensuously described by Ms. Alida Lye:
The honey, as Cynthia has said, is pale, more white than yellow. The colour of sponge. and it tastes of garden, of greenery, of life and death. It is the best thing that Silvia has ever tasted.
Ibrahim watches Silvia, enjoying her pleasure vicariously, then takes a fingerful for himself. If he believed in heaven, this is what it would taste like: sweet and gold, sunshine and love. He wants to kiss her mouth.
We can see from this passage the allusions to the honey farm as the Biblical Promised Land that was “flowing with milk and honey.” (Incidentally, there is plenty of fresh milk on the farm, and it makes frequent appearances.) There are other such references to come that make Silvia recall the plagues on Egypt: “blood” in the water, infestations of frogs, lice, and so on. Soon, Silvia’s Bible-influenced morals make her think (rightly? wrongly?) that she alone is responsible for the visitation of each of the farm’s problems:
For some reason, she thinks the lice arrived when she murdered the baby queen bees. The frogs came after she slept with Ibrahim, the red water immediately after she confessed, out loud for the first time, to maybe not believing in God.
As well as these mysterious plagues there is the menacing enigma of Cynthia herself and her past, which is revealed in bits and pieces throughout the narrative. To avoid any spoiler alerts, I will refrain from posting any of the questions that arise in the mind of Silvia, who is unquestionably singled out by Cynthia as a “favourite” for a reason that will become evident to the patient reader of The Honey Farm.
Carol Bruneau, the award-winning author of A Bird On Every Tree, said of The Honey Farm:
“[A] mesmerizing, suspenseful novel. Harriet Alida Lye is a writer of prodigious talent and The Honey Farm a thrilling, chills-inducing debut. Brava!”
Naomi MacKinnon at Consumed by Ink said in her review:
“I found this book gripping and the writing beautiful. […..] The last quarter of the book feels like a nightmare in which you know something’s coming but you can’t move your body.”
I heartily agree, and I am putting The Honey Farm on the 2018 longlist for a “Very Best!” Book Award for fiction. As it will be released in the Spring of 2018, it will undoubtedly appear on many Summer reading lists. I included it in my “Summer Reads” collection.
The Honey Farm by Harriet Alida Lye
Vagrant Press (an imprint of Nimbus Publishing)