The History of Bees by Maja Lunde – book review

by Catherine Woulfe / 19 September, 2017
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Maja Lunde’s previous writing for children and television comes through in her story’s pace and clarity. Photo/Alamy

Norwegian author Maja Lunde's worlds buzz toward an apocalyptic ending.

Pesticides kill the bees. Crops die. We die. Speculative fiction? Even for the genre, this first novel by Norwegian Maja Lunde feels uncomfortably close to non-fiction that hasn’t quite happened yet. She creates the strong sense of already being halfway down an apocalyptic path. That’s the point, of course.

Part of the disquieting nowness stems from the fact that two of the three stories that act as our vantage points are set in the past.

We visit England in 1852, where William shutters his seed shop and takes to bed, unable to buck up even as his family comes close to starvation. The problem? His ambitions of being a famous biologist are being thwarted by the children that just keep coming. It makes for a rather unsympathetic character: what reasonable person cares about ego when their kids are hungry? Also, one would think, as a biologist, he’d have a better handle on family planning.

William’s great breakthrough, of a sort, is his design for a more efficient beehive.

As the story inches closer to the existential edge, children become more important.

Cross to Ohio 155 years later. Another father, George, has spent his life keeping bees the old-fashioned way, and he expects his only child, Tom, to do the same. “Expects” is not a strong enough word. George is devoted to that plan; driven by it. Tom – you saw this coming – has other ideas. Another blow: overnight, George’s bees disappear as colony-collapse disorder sweeps America.

Fast-forward 100 years, through a more drastic kind of collapse, to a very different world. We’re in China, in a massive orchard of gnarly old pear trees, with no insects left to pollinate them. Teams of humans – worker bees, each family assigned their own cell-like hut – use feathered brushes to sweep pollen from one flower to the next. The trees are precious, human life less so. Tao wants something better for her three-year-old son, who is due to join her working in the trees in just five years.

On a rare day of rest, the boy wanders off for a moment and is terribly, mysteriously hurt. The authorities whisk him away to what’s left of Beijing. Tao follows, a bright spark of morality and hope in a city that’s otherwise very Cormac McCarthy.

Lunde has previously focused on writing for children and television. That comes through in her story’s pace and clarity, the clever weaving together of loose ends and her fable-like faith in the innate goodness of people.

Yes, it’s a bit sticky-sweet in places, and the humans-as-bees metaphor that provides the struts for the story is at times less than subtle.

But I suspect Lunde knows we see all that and that it doesn’t bother her – so long as we get the message.

The History of Bees, by Maja Lunde (Simon & Schuster, $37.99; e-book, $19.99)

This article was first published in the August 5, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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