Erick Setiawan’s first novel, Of Bees and Mist, is a phenomenal achievement. Although it is an example of what some have described as “magical realism,” it is unfair to label it in any specific genre. Yes, there are supernatural elements that come into play throughout the story, accepted as part of life by the characters in the world the author has vividly created, but the book crosses many genres with ease. The fantasy is fantastic, the romance is romantic, and the horror is horrific, but in the end, Of Bees and Mist stands on its own as a modern fairytale with all-too-human characters who accept the wonders and tragedies of their existence as part of their journey from womb to grave.
The magic in the story is sometimes as subtle as a specific scent eternally clinging to a character or as forthright as ghosts in mirrors, stairways that add and detract steps on a whim, and mists that seem to be living, breathing forces of their own. The enchanted elements of the story are woven within the plot in a matter-of-fact manner. The characters live in a world where fortunetellers are not just a carnival act but are following a valid vocation, like jewelers, merchants, or midwives, and curses are as real as any physical ailment.
The story centers on the life of Meridia, whom we follow from birth through decades of her life. Beset by a dysfunctional family, whose loveless barriers are manifested in a house of perpetually overcast days and ceaseless chills, Meridia struggles to find an elusive joy in her life. Every time someone manages to connect with her (such as her over-protective but nurturing Nurse or her possibly imaginary friend Hannah), they disappear. Finally meeting the charismatic Daniel, she falls in love and marries, only to leap into newfound nightmares, most of them stemming from the machinations of her mother-in-law, Eva. If Meridia is one of the finest female protagonists ever molded in the pages of literature, which I believe she is, then Eva is without a doubt one of the greatest antagonists (male or female) ever imagined.
Setiawan has a great command as a storyteller. His prose flows like a classic fable, enchanting and mythic. He lays the groundwork with descriptions and events that seem to come out of a timeless folktale, building to a crescendo that packs a wallop. He captures the reader’s attention with a marvelous stream of illustrative words, which makes his occasional cliché (e.g., “playing us like a fiddle”) all the more regrettable, but luckily those formulaic phrases are few and far between.
He has an excellent grasp of dramatic dialogue, causing certain confrontational scenes to bypass any melodrama and grip the reader in overwhelming emotion. Those moments are the most powerful in the book, when characters confront each other after much careful build-up. It feels natural. It feels raw. It feels completely satisfying.
For the most part, all the characters are memorable and distinct (with the exception of Meridia’s friendly neighbors Rebecca and Leah who seemed undefined and difficult to differentiate). Setiawan paints their portraits with care and gives almost all of them fulfilling arcs, developing and changing as the tale progresses. It is a testament to Setiawan’s skill as a wordsmith and a teller of tales that he makes us love and hate certain characters, sometimes within the span of a single page. Early on we shudder at the cruel distance Meridia’s father shows her, and it makes the following simple passage midway through the story an extremely powerful moment and one of my favorites in the book:
Gabriel then did something unthinkable – he drew the baby close and kissed him on the brow. Meridia’s eyes welled up. It was a kiss he had never deigned to give her.
The biggest surprise, therefore, in a book full of them, is that Setiawan finds a way to humanize so many of these fictional individuals. What might have been a story full of two-dimensional people instead becomes a rich chronicle of lives that might be recognizable in any of our own families and acquaintances.
From the opening paragraph that foreshadows the saga to come, right up to the very last unexpected sentence, Erick Setiawan weaves a story to remember. Reading Of Bees and Mist, I could not help feeling slightly giddy, knowing that I was discovering a story and characters for the very first time that would live in my memory forever alongside other favorites. If his first novel is any indication of more magical tales he has to tell, I await his further efforts with childlike anticipation.