In her atmospheric debut novel “The Honey Farm,” Toronto writer Harriet Alida Lye stirs the imagination and calls us to attention: Listen to the “throttling hum of movement” and “a hungry, unearthly cringe: the rub of wings as they fly.”

This unnerving sound of swarming bees is not something I’d like to hear while I’m in my garden, but on the page, its suggestion of something sinister compels me to read on and immerse myself in the eerie world of beekeeper Cynthia’s honey farm.

A drought has turned her soil to sand, honeycombs to wax, and desiccated the flowers. “The bees were restless.” Cynthia, who needs help rebuilding her operation, advertises for workers who will labor in exchange for room and board and “life experience.” What better candidates for the job than struggling artists who need a rent-free place to live and time to create?

Among those who respond to her ads are Silvia, a recent college graduate and aspiring poet who is looking to escape her overprotective, staunchly religious parents in Halifax, and Ibrahim, a painter who forages on Toronto streets for cardboard pieces he uses as canvases for his bright, colorful art.

At the farm, in an isolated corner of Ontario near Quebec, they join a mix of artist volunteers. From the beginning, an uneasy vibe permeates the story. The landscape “looks like it’s from a book or a movie, or even from her imagination. Anything but real life,” thinks Silvia. More troubling: With no phone or cell reception on the farm, communication with the outside world is cut off.

The mysterious, arbitrary and demanding Cynthia soon has her workers tending the hives, gardening, shearing sheep and feeding the pigs. With the exception of Ibrahim, who she inexplicably excuses from chores so he can paint, there’s little time for art. Life on the farm settles into a normal pattern — until it doesn’t.

Silvia and Ibrahim, who bond as friends and lovers, are drawn into increasingly bizarre circumstances, particularly Cynthia’s disquieting interest in Silvia, who senses she is “underneath a bell jar — as though she is on display, and set apart.” Suspense builds around Cynthia’s obsession and Silvia’s struggles with identity issues and a crisis of faith. A series of disorienting events with biblical overtones — an invasion of frogs, water that runs red and an infestation of lice — threatens Silvia’s mental state and prompts some workers to leave.

The novel satisfies any curiosity about the social hierarchy of bees while hewing to a dark story line. If the author stumbles, it’s with too many secondary characters, supernumeraries waiting in the wings with little to add to the narrative; and, a small quibble, her overuse of similes. She really doesn’t need them. Her richly detailed prose, vivid imagery and effective pacing combine to make this first novel a memorable one.

 

Elfrieda Abbe, a gardener with a high regard for bees, is a freelance critic whose articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers. She lives in Wisconsin.

The Honey Farm
By: Harriet Alida Lye.
Publisher: Liveright, 328 pages, $25.95.