Nina Aquilina travels back to her homeland, Malta, to visit her ageing parents who had previously disowned her. The stay turns out to be somewhat unexpected, as she finds out that Malta is where diseased spirits go to heal and move on to another stage in life. She talks with the spirits and drinks beer with Jesus while trying to find her identity and culture that she has left behind in her youth.
The story embodies Maltese culture beautifully. Caroline Smailes immersed herself into the character and allowed the reader to experience something unique. Although Nina is Maltese, her establishing a family in England and being disowned by her parents had led to her loss in faith and culture. The re-exploration of her identity allows readers who are not familiar with Malta to be introduced to the rich culture. Dialogues include a few Maltese words, and the story occurs in historically rich locations and includes local cuisine. These are all aptly described in a way that connects you the story better.
Something I particularly liked was the rhythm of the story. It had hints of monotone and repetition, especially when describing sounds. The presentation of the book was also quite different. Although some reviewers disliked this style, I found it effective in aiding the concept of not being encapsulated by time. There’s a lack of urgency and it adds to the effect of identity diffusion. This monotony also helped me relate to Nina easier. I could focus on Nina’s depressive ambience, rather than complicated and bombastic writing.
It’s a two-edged sword almost. A technique that contributes to the magical story-telling can be interpreted as alienating writing, depending on the reader. Especially in the case of Nina, a person wouldn’t be so attentive and selfless to observe all around her, but rather focus on who is speaking, and it is a rare occasion I forgive the abundant use of dialogue tags. I am convinced that the writer did this intentionally (just a hunch).
The novel included a few chapters from the point-of-view of two spirits (or ghosts, whatever you want to call them). In the paperback version, their pages have a black border. This is a subtle difference (it is not distracting) to distinguish between Nina and the particular ghost’s point-of-view. However, their chapters did break the pace.
Personally, I really liked Tilly’s character and chapters, but, this almost had a drawback when I went back to Nina’s point-of-view. Although it was interesting, and I’d love to read a whole book from Tilly’s personality, I feel the author went too much into her life and away from Nina’s story. I didn’t particularly enjoy that dissociation.
Flavia Bellini’s part—not sure what to say about it. As a reader who was brought up in the Maltese-Catholic background, I was already quite familiar with the cultural and religious context. Thus, Flavia’s part was personally too long and somewhat boring. It’s a historic, religious story, repeated within this novel. I didn’t particularly find it useful within the story, at least not for the length that it took. That section did distract me from the main story, but perhaps it was pivotal considering Nina’s religious background and her attempt at rediscovering her identity and tracing religion along that line.
I read the book in a short span of time, which is a great sign. I’ve rated the novel 4/5 stars (I really liked it) on Goodreads. Most of my good ratings are influenced by impeccable character depth and/or outstanding writing. Like Bees to Honey is a unique work, and I judged it on a different scale, almost. Its storytelling sets it off from anything I have read previously, and that gets bonus stars on itself. I transported myself into the story quickly, empathising with Nina early on.
I even shed tears by the third chapter, and a book had never done that before. It’s a combination of great storytelling and similarities between Nina and I. The shame that Nina brought to her Catholic family for getting pregnant outside marriage is similar to what I felt when I came out as gay. Consequently, both Nina and I had lost our identities, and perhaps, this was one of the reasons I could immediately understand some of Nina’s experiences.
Overall, it was quite a pleasant read, significantly unique and deserves a place on your bookshelf (do read it with an open mind).