The Hive by Gill Hornby

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In 1714’s The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope wrote about a small (albeit creepy) incident – the appropriation of a piece of someone’s hair without permission – which caused a rift between two families. In his mock-heroic poem, this disagreement becomes a battle worthy of the gods: ‘Then cease, Bright Nymph! to mourn thy ravish’d Hair/Which adds new Glory to the shining Sphere!’ etc. The contrast between the mundane and the epic has always made for good comedy and, 300 years on, Gill Hornby similarly elevates some very minor domestic spats. Her setting is St Ambrose Primary School, somewhere in the Home Counties – specifically among the mothers who run, or want to run, or who are desperate just to be asked to be involved in, the PTA. Hornby knows that the social struggles of her characters are – to them – the stuff of legend. There are deliberately portentous titles to the short chapters, e.g. ‘The Weekend of the Car Boot Sale’ or ‘The Day of the Planning Meeting for the Ball’. There are also mini-headings such as ’12 P.M. LUNCH BREAK’ and ‘8.50 A.M. DROP-OFF’, emphasising that not only do the characters’ lives revolve around the academic day, but that they have, in effect, never really left school. If there is a problem with The Hive, it is that Hornby allows things to tip into caricature at times, and goes the whole hog with the central metaphor – the queen of the mums is even called Bea. But it’s fertile land and often very funny – the hapless Heather’s minutes of fundraising meetings are minor classics: ‘COLETTE then inquired of THE COMMITTEE, Hello? Like, excuse her? But what was THE COMMITTEE to be called and was it going T-shirts or wristbands?’ The delightful, undervalued Rachel, virtually defect-free, is our sane guide. Others’ shortcomings are more or less gently picked over. But pure monsters are no fun, and even Bea has some redeeming features. Equally, the apparently saintly, wise Melissa is, by the end, shaping up effortlessly as a replacement queen. The hive has chosen. Because their frailties are exhibited on a relatively small canvas, they are magnified. A moral? Storms in teacups are always fun, so long as they are someone else’s.

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