Francisco Morales has lived a long time in exile, although his is not as extreme or as tangible as exile in the traditional sense. When he was nine years old, his mother packed up the entire household and relocated from the family orange orchard to Monterrey, Nuevo León. Until the day that Francisco calls a cab to travel back to Linares, the closest town to where the orchard was, he hasn’t talked about the real reason for the family’s move. He doesn’t even talk about it until the end of The Murmur of Bees, by Sofía Segovia (beautifully translated by Simon Bruni). Instead, Francisco tells us (through the taxi driver) about the first nine years of his life, how the Morales family converted their sugarcane farm into a massive orange orchard, and about his friendship with the unusual Simonopio, before he explains what he’s been running from all these years.
The Murmur of Bees doesn’t open with Francisco, really. Instead, it opens with the discovery of an infant Simonopio by the very agéd Nana Reja. Simonopio was abandoned because of his severe cleft lip and cleft palate—although it doesn’t help that he is also found covered in honey bees. One character, who quietly becomes Simonopio and the Morales’ family nemesis, says that Simonopio’s condition is because the devil kissed him. Nana Reja and the Morales family take the boy into their care. Simonopio turns out to have special abilities. He can predict the weather. He never gets lost. And he can talk to bees. Simonopio is about ten years older than Francisco, who wasn’t born until after the Spanish flu pandemic. The two boys have a close connection right from the start. They’re nearly inseparable until the day that Señora Morales takes the family to Monterrey.
Segovia has a great gift for relating a lot of history without bogging down the narrative. Through Francisco and the lives of the Morales family, we learn about the impact of the Mexican Revolution and the agrarian reform movement of the 1910s and 1920s, the influenza pandemic, sharecropping, the conflict between atheist socialists and the Catholic church, and so much more. I didn’t feel the need to go to Wikipedia to learn more—I had more than enough information—but neither did I feel like all this history distracted from the very human stories unfolding around the Morales orchard. I fell in love with so many of the characters because Francisco does such a good job of telling their stories. He only takes center stage in about a third of the chapters. He gives way to chapters about Simonopio, chapters about both of his parents, and even a few chapters from the perspective of Anselmo, the canker at the center of the thriving orchard and community.
The Murmur of Bees is a book that envelops its readers; I sank into this book like a warm bath. There are awful things that happen, but the worst detains are told in an oblique way that takes away a lot of the potential horror. The awful things are also surrounded by years of family tales, bits of magic, and fully-realized, wonderful characters. This book would be a brilliant choice for book groups, readers who want family sagas, readers who like more accessible magical realism, and readers who are curious about life in Mexico that’s not all about Día de Muertos. I have a feeling I’m going to be recommending this book to a lot of people in the future.