Yamen Manai’s The Ardent Swarm is an accessible yet elegant novel that wraps an immense amount of beauty and complexity into a small package.
In addition to its quaint size (under 200 pages), what initially drew me to this book was its cover. As an avid gardener, I’ve always had affinity for bees and even took an apiculture course in university to check off my science requirement. When I saw this book in the online catalogue, I couldn’t resist – honey yellow and covered in bees. However, as the old adage goes: you can’t judge a book by its cover; and this book is about a lot more than bees.
The Ardent Swarm follows the story of Sidi, a beekeeper who leads a solitary life on the outskirts of an isolated village in post-Arab Spring Tunisia. While he’s a man of faith, his primary devotion is to “his girls” – the bees. His hermetic life takes a turn when he discovers that one of his hives and its inhabitants have been brutally destroyed by an unknown invader. After discerning the source of the attack, highly aggressive and invasive hornets, Sidi goes on a quest to discover where these hornets came from and how they can be defeated so that his hives can continue to thrive.
While the story primarily follows Sidi, his quest is interspersed with chapters in which readers gain first-person glimpses into the lives of the characters Sidi encounters along his journey. Through these chapters, a secondary plot emerges which explores how an oppressive religious fundamentalist regime came to rule Tunisia. Before long, the two stories become inextricably intertwined, culminating in an incredible and satisfying conclusion.
Though The Ardent Swarm was only recently released in English, it was originally published in French in 2017 and has won numerous literary awards including the Prix Comar d’Or and the Prix des Cinq Continents. I was absolutely enthralled by this novel and highly recommend it to armchair travellers, aspiring beekeepers, and lovers of other didactic works like that of Paulo Coelho.