Translated by: Simon Bruni
Published: 1st March 2015
Genre: Historical/Literary Fiction
Trigger warnings: Injury detail, child death, grief
This was a buddy read with my friend Kriti, our second of 2020. We talked about the book in detail at various intervals, taking it in turns to ask each other questions and write down our observations. It was a fun discussion, and I shall share some of it with you later in the post.
From the day that old Nana Reja found a baby abandoned under a bridge, the life of a small Mexican town forever changed. Disfigured and covered in a blanket of bees, little Simonopio is for some locals the stuff of superstition, a child kissed by the devil. But he is welcomed by landowners Francisco and Beatriz Morales, who adopt him and care for him as if he were their own.
As he grows up, Simonopio becomes a cause for wonder to the Morales family, because when the uncannily gifted child closes his eyes, he can see what no one else can – visions of all that’s yet to come, both beautiful and dangerous. Followed by his protective swarm of bees and living to deliver his adoptive family from threats—both human and those of nature – Simonopio’s purpose in Linares will, in time, be divined.
Reading this book is an entirely unique and consuming experience. It envelops and immerses you in its majestic prose, that teems with incalculable meaning as it tells several magical and moving stories in one. Along the way, it explores a vast array of themes from every possible perspective, all against a beautifully realised backdrop of civil war era rural Mexico.
It has a continuous fantastical element that provides a healthy sprinkling of intrigue and it often reads like a fairytale, such is the richness of the descriptions and the way it focuses on the actions of each character and their consequences. At the same time, there are also moments that are steeped in tragedy and offer pause for deep thought and contemplation.
The story tells of the Morales family, who oversee a large swathe of agricultural land. It begins when the elderly Nana Reja, who has nursed many of the local children in her lifetime and spends almost all of her time in a wooden rocking chair, hears crying from one of the surrounding fields. She follows the sound and comes upon a disfigured baby boy, surrounded by a swarm of bees.
Nana Reja immediately develops a bond with the boy, and when she is discovered with him in her arms, Francisco and Beatriz Morales decide to take him in and raise him as their own, despite others labelling him the devil. Always accompanied by the bees, who belong to him as a constant companion, Simonopio develops into a someone who is free-spirited and highly perceptive.
Though unable to communicate verbally, Simonopio feels a strong sense of duty to his adoptive family, and this increases when Beatriz gives birth to a son, Francisco Junior. The two share a connection and find a way of talking to one another, with Simonopio becoming a kind of mentor to his younger brother. He promises never to leave Francisco Junior’s side, but is also wary of the threats that exist on the horizon.
Although the years do go by and the story takes place over the course of two separate timelines, the book has a timeless feel to it, often personified by some of the characters. Simonopio is quite mysterious and possesses psychic abilities, and he just never seemed to age. There is also Nana Reja, who appears capable of living forever.
It is told primarily in the third person, but certain chapters along the way are in the first person, from the perspective of a narrator whose identity does not become apparent until later in the book. This adds an interesting extra dimension that becomes more pronounced towards the end, by which time I was emotionally invested in the family and each of their own individual stories.
The endearing nature of the characters and their outlook on life are what help to make this book, as well as the voluminous depth with which the themes are examined. Everything from death, to grief, to familial relationships are spoken about at length. And when I say that, I mean entire chapters are devoted to them, sometimes more. Every angle is covered, and at times it felt slightly overwhelming.
This does mean that the pace is very slow, but the exceptional power of the writing more than makes up for it. It captures you in every moment, transports you to the scene. The author does such a remarkable job of painting the whole picture with refinement, and using compelling symbolism by pitting the lion that is Simonopio against the coyote that endlessly pursues him.
Whenever Simonopio appeared, the book became more captivating and I was very taken by him as a character. I loved his devotion to the Morales family, the mystique that always emanated from him, and his independence. His relationship with Francisco Junior was moving, even more so when they were able to talk to each other and Francisco Junior became his interpreter.
Beatriz was another character who I really liked. She is extremely strong-willed and the way she carries on after all the events that happen in her life is admirable. Her sections were also deeply immersive, while I thoroughly appreciated how she and Francisco showed unrelenting acceptance towards Simonopio and acknowledged his need to roam freely across Linares.
The symbolism I mentioned earlier is also apparent in the portrayal of Anselmo, in the form of his bitterness and self-regard. This leads him down a very dark path and his presence brings a more tangible sense of danger in addition to things such as the ongoing Mexican Revolution and its Agrarian Reforms, as well as the Spanish flu outbreak that devastates many of the local families.
The ever-changing political landscape of Mexico in that era is always in the background and I liked the context it brought to the story. As for the rural setting itself, it feels like an extra character, as its culture is so prominent in the writing. The atmosphere that this creates fully transports you and arguably provides the most lasting memory of the book.
In line with the themes that appear throughout, the direction the story takes late on is interesting and contains more than a hint of mystery. The ending is possibly bittersweet and certainly very reflective, containing both a parting of ways and a journey towards enlightenment, as it stretches all the way to 100 chapters.
Overall, this is a book that showcases fantastic writing which delves deep into multiple facets of human nature and life events. It takes place on a broad scale and is utterly packed with detail, and even allowing for the slow pace it is hard to tear your eyes away from the pages. I really liked it, and Simonopio was the biggest highlight of all.
Before we started the book
Kriti: I have read a couple of books about mysterious babies and this one reminds me of The Light between Oceans, which was such a heartbreaking book, and The Story of Beautiful Girl. Both of them centered around the adopted parents and I am excited that you suggested a book where the child grows older and we hear his side. This also a great opportunity to learn about Mexican revolution, which I do not know anything about. What drew you to this book, Stephen?
Stephen: I was drawn to this book by the concept and the setting. The idea of Simonopio and his mysterious powers really intrigued me; they hint towards the book containing a large fantastical element and I am excited to discover his story. I have read a couple of books about mysterious babies, most recently The Good People, which focused more on folklore and myth. I know a little about the Mexican revolution having previously done some research on the subject, and this book may help me learn more.
End of Chapter 15
SD: The opening chapters of this book are evocative and highly detailed, immersing me in the setting. I like how the Mexican Revolution and the flu outbreak seem to act as a constant backdrop to events and plays a prominent role in the story. What have you made of it so far, Kriti?
KK: It is fascinating to learn about how the Revolution and flu affect the common people. I am finding the writing very immersive and providing the right know of details.
Have you read a story with a similar backdrop before?
SD: I have read lots of books that have centred on historical events and landscapes, but this one certainly feels unique compared to them. This backdrop is extremely vivid and as you say, it is interesting to learn about how the normal working people were affected.
We have two very broad, overlapping narratives which contain a lot of different characters, and I am also quite sure we don’t know exactly who the narrator is yet. What do you think of the writing and the narratives?
KK: Yes, there is a lot of back and forth and jump in timelines. I feel the narrator is an old man and Simonopio was like an older brother to him growing up. But so much happened between the time of the Revolution, Simonopio being found and the present for the narrator that it is a lot to take in.
End of Chapter 45
How Francisco Junior learned Simonopio’s language and became his interpreter was very moving too. Did you envision the story going this way?
SD: I completely agree! I was wondering where the narrator would fit in, and it was extremely moving for me to see the close and caring relationship Simonopio has with Francisco Junior. I feel we have learned much more about Simonopio in the process, and what matters to him. Seeing Francisco Junior become his interpreter was quite possibly my favourite moment in the book so far. I did not completely expect the story to take this direction, but right now I am glad that it has.
Simonopio’s sixth sense and his ability to detect danger really fascinates me. There is also the way he seems to exchange information with the bees and how he is able to communicate with them. I get the feeling there is still much more to discover about him. What do you think of those events, Kriti?
KK: His sixth sense is quite interesting and it goes beyond the bees, though most of the time they help! I agree with you that there is more to Simonopio’s abilities. Though I don’t expect us to know why he has them, I think they will play a major role going forward.
End of Chapter 60
SD: I like how Simonopio and Francisco Junior’s relationship has developed. Simonopio seems to feel a major sense of duty towards him and it has been interesting how that has led to Francisco Junior sharing his sense of adventure. I’m not sure if the story of the coyote is intended to rein him in. Have you enjoyed their character development?
KK: I have! Their relationship is one of the highlights of this book for me. Though Simonopio is godson to Francisco Junior’s parents, they are practically brothers. Simonopio knows though that he is different from other people and it was interesting to read him imparting other knowledge to Francisco Junior, knowledge that other people just don’t listen for.
End of Chapter 80
KK: Beatriz is an amazing woman and there is so much strength in her even in grief. She regrets certain things but that does not stop her from doing what she can. She is one of my favorite characters of all times I think.
SD: I agree, Beatriz is an excellent character. I really admire her resilience and the way she keeps going despite everything. I also like how the author conveys her conflicting emotions.
End of book
KK: Though this book started at a slow pace, it did a phenomenal job of world building as well as the characters. I loved how immersive and detailed the writing was. I liked the varying length of chapters as well. This is one of my favorite books this year! I am glad that we chose it and we took the time to read and discuss it in chunks.
SD: I agree, and I am incredibly happy that this has turned out to be one of your best books of the year! The pace is slow, but the way in which it establishes the world is truly profound, and I am pretty sure that I have never read a book that explores certain themes such as death and fate in this level of detail. So much of the writing is extremely meaningful and the characters help to immerse you entirely within the narrative. I’m also glad that we chose it and have really enjoyed discussing it with you.
Sofia Segovia studied communications at the Universidad de Monterrey, under the mistaken belief that she would go on to become a journalist. However, she is now a creative writing teacher and novelist, with The Murmur of Bees winning iTunes novel of the year for 2015. Along with writing several plays for her local theatre, she has also published another novel entitled Night Of The Hurricane.
Simon Bruni is a prolific literary translator from Spanish, who studied linguistics and translation in London and Exeter respectively. He has lived in cities including Alicante, Santander, and Valencia, and has won three John Dryden Awards.
Fabulously written and immersive in a unique way, this was a book that captured my imagination. It may be slow, but it is also very powerful.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐