The Hive by Gill Hornby

23rd May 2013

the hive gill hornby

The Hive is the highly readable début from former Telegraph columnist Gill Hornby. It centres around the lives of the parents who wait to collect their children at the gates of St Ambrose School, and the intricate social gameplaying that has taken root at the heart of this close-knit society-in-miniature.

The mums and families of St Ambrose pride themselves on ‘looking out for one another’, but from the offset it’s clear the only looking being done is obsessively at each others’ lives.

That, and at where they each stand in the increasingly competitive hive of hierarchy that exists under the school beech tree at picking-up and dropping-off time each day.

At the centre of this swarm is the overpowering (Queen) Bea, who rules over her besotted gaggle of eager-to-please fellow mums, all desperate to keep their place in the group by volunteering to help her ‘invitation only’ fundraising plans – but this year, it seems, things will be different.

For one thing, Bea’s former confidante Rachel appears no longer to be even on her radar, and is anyway seemingly fading away under her post-marriage-breakup haze of misery.

Even apathetic Georgie and Jo get more of a look-in, much to their dismay. Wet and feeble Heather, on the other hand, is desperately determined to escape her lifelong position orbiting around the outskirts of the group, at any cost.

And then there are the newbies – the landrover-driving, pushy rich-ditz Bubba, and the quiet but disarmingly persuasive Melissa, neither of whom seem scared of Bea.

There’s also a fresh headmaster in town with ambitions for a new school library, so a special fundraising committee needs to be formed for the year…

True to its name, there’s certainly a lot going on in The Hive, and with so many characters it’s a mighty challenge to summarise. I was always taught this was a bad thing, but Hornby is adept at giving each woman just enough of the limelight to give a lucid picture of the whole.

The characters – in particular Rachel and Georgie – are wittily written and provoked more than one belly-laugh in a public place, an all-too-rare treat for me when it comes to books.

Bea and Bubba are slightly too two-dimensional, although both provide gripping plot turns and do add generously to the hilarity. Headmaster Tom Orchard also doesn’t quite make it to the three-dimensional, but provides the necessary fuzzy moments in a book that is, on the whole, bravely uninterested in men.

Of course, the book’s title has significance, and a hive/bee (or should that be Bea?) metaphor runs throughout the book with an almost alarming blatancy that it doesn’t always get away with.

In truth, the occasionally too obvious plot twists and symbolism is the only thing that made the honey of this book slightly on the sickly side (see, now I’m doing it), but I wouldn’t let this dissuade anyone from reading it.

As début novels go, this is impressively absorbing, eventful, and sharp... On the whole, Hornby is to be commended: she already writes with an extraordinarily strong individual voice, something so many writers fail to do successfully until much later in their careers.

As début novels go, this is impressively absorbing, eventful, and sharp – but, while it touches on such issues as depression, suicide, bullying, and obsession, it wasn’t particularly moving.

The Hive isn’t a literary masterpiece, but then it doesn’t set out to be – it’s just a refreshingly enjoyable novel, and I can’t wait to read the follow-up.

The Hive is published in hardback by Little, Brown on 23rd May, and is available from Foyles, Amazon or all good independent bookshops, priced at £12.99. An ebook version is also available, priced at £6.49.

Rating: 3.5/5

Recommended for: Mothers and housewives, teachers and church hall community members, those who want a giggle and a good story.

Other recommended reading: Where Rainbows End by Cecelia Ahern, Bridesmaids by Jane Costello, Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead, Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

Laura Vickers