Mothers-in-law. There have been many movies about it and more then a few of us have wished the life villainous would get their claws out of their marriage. Such a relationship serves as the center for Of Bees and Mist by Eric Setiawan. Serving as the likable, if somewhat gawky, protagonist, Meridia was born to a critical father and an eccentric mother. Her life punctuated by the different colored mists that surrounded their house, serving as an indicator of when her father would depart to see his mistress while her mother slaves away in the kitchen seemingly oblivious to the fact that her husband departs every night to see a mistress. Meridia grows up watching their relationship until she finally meets Daniel, a boy she’s smitten with. As their own relationship progresses the topic of marriage comes around. When Daniel brings Meridia to meet his mother, Meridia is charmed by the apparent normalcy of their life and sees Eva as a potential confidant. However, soon after their marriage it becomes apparent that dynamics in the house are not what they appeared and that Eva possesses a power of persuasion to all members of the house, aided by the buzzing of bees. As Meridia gains insight into her mother-in-law’s games, she attempts to get Daniel to see reason in the hopes of saving their relationship and having a life free of Eva’s persecution.
I took some time before writing this review because I feared that I wouldn’t be able to do this book justice. For a while after I read it, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about the book. Setiawan using many literary devices to provide a subtle symbolism to the mythical world he constructs and all these nuances didn’t make sense until I finally put the book down and thought about it for a few days.
I found Meridia to be a very relate-able character, exhibiting the timely plight of many woman in today’s world. Through the book we see her relationship with, not just Daniel, but her father, mother, and sister-in-law shift and bend and the way they’re manipulated is so subtle that I hardly realized it was happening until I was almost done with the book. One of the most notable changes in the book is Meridia’s relationship with Daniel’s sister Malin, who went from scorning Meridia to finding an ally in her. A reverse transformation occurs with the younger sister Permony, who even though she loves Meridia, suffer falling out down the line in the book.
The way the relationships in the book are broken and mended and broken again presents a very discreet coloration of a domestic drama. The picture Setiawan paints with his words are chosen beautifully. The novel flowed without excess description, giving the reader enough to imagine the way the characters looked and behaved without dictating every minor detail of their lives for us. His characters come to life with vivid personality and exceptional quality. It felt like I was in the room watching the events of the different households unfold as I read it and that allowed me to engross myself in the story for hours on end.
In the end the only real peeve I had with this book was the plot. While the family drama in that of itself was interesting, the mystical aspect of the story wasn’t explored enough. I found the foreboding qualities of the bees and the mist, both ominous spiteful in their own rights, to be underplayed. Though I could understand the reason for choosing the two metaphors I think that the qualities and reasons they had such power where something that could have been played into a little more.
But aside from the mythical aspect, I found Of Bees and Mist to be a very enjoyable and sentimental novel that accurately explored a complicated family dynamic. In the end though, I think that the real hallmark of this novel is Meridia and her journey throughout the story, not so much because of her experiences with the bees and the mist, but because of the way she transforms from a young girl to a woman and reinvents herself several times over during the course of the novel. For that reason I consider this a must read for anyone seeking that kind of inspiration to reinvent themselves.
Final Grade: B-