Book review: The History of Bees by Maja Lunde
The History of Bees by Maja Lunde, Scribner, S38
Anyone who spends time outdoors will know that there seem to be fewer bees than ever before. Overseas diseases have reached New Zealand hives, as have negative responses to environmental pesticide traces. "Colony collapse" sounds apocalyptic – and it is. Without bees, human life as we know it would cease to exist.
In her novel, The History of Bees, newly translated from the Norwegian, Maja Lunde uses human reliance upon bees as the basis for a story that unites three characters from widely divergent times and places.
In England, in 1852, William is a melancholic biologist and seed merchant whose depression has defeated him. In the face of his own apparent lack of success and his family responsibilities, which include seven daughters and a son, William has retired to his bed, seldom taking a visitor. He is only inspired after his oldest daughter encourages a project to build a better beehive.
George is an apiarist living in Ohio in the United States in 2007. His son, Tom, has just returned home from University. Not only has Tom turned vegetarian, but he wants to change careers to get a PhD in writing. Despite himself, George cannot contain the fury that threatens to split his family nor can he afford to combat modern bee-keeping practice where hives are shipped back and forth across America.
In China, in 2093, the world is a vastly different place. Bees have disappeared. Crops must be painstakingly pollinated by hand. Food is rationed, cities have shrunk, and state power is even stronger. Tao brushes pollen onto fruit-tree blossoms as a job but after her youngest son is taken away after what seems to be a strange accident, she cannot discover his whereabouts.
The History of Bees is a novel of ideas but it is enlivened by unexpected characters. What could have been a didactic book becomes something all-together different. Exploring ideas through individuals who are perhaps not initially sympathetic, provides an invaluable perspective. The interactions between parents and children are also crucial.
While each of her stories is conceptually centred on bees, hives, and colony life, Lunde knits together human connections and the complexity of the natural world in a thought-provoking way.
At times, the translation falls flat. It is hard to deal with the word "diapers" in the context of 19th-century British life. Lunde is a script writer and has written several books for children and young adults. At times, this background shows in the novel's programmatic structure.
The History of Bees has been a best-seller in Norway and Germany. It is a stimulating novel which tackles an essential subject.