Literary fiction is one of my favourite types of books to read. I love the experimentation with technique and interrogation of assumptions that they often produce through the plots.
Having written several children’s and young adult books, The History of Bees is Maja Lunde’s first venture into adult literary fiction. This dystopian novel follows the narratives of three generations, separated by place as well as time, against the backdrop of a global crisis.
England, 1851. William is a seed merchant who once had ambitions to become a renowned researcher in the natural sciences. An altercation with his mentor, Rahm, results in a period of depression so acute he cannot bear to leave his bed for months, leaving the family in desperate means. It is a visit from his only son (among seven daughters) that reinvigorates him once again, and he sets out to build a new type of beehive—one that he hopes will give him both respect and wealth.
United States, 2007. George is a beekeeper trying to earn a living while struggling against the advances of modern farming. Unwilling to move away from his family’s traditional methods and follow the more capitalist (and successful) way of beekeeping, George is hopeful that his son, with his university education, can provide solutions to keep the family business running.
China, 2098. Tao is one of thousands of workers who have to hand paint pollen onto the fruit trees for 12 hours each day now that bees are extinct. Their disappearance led to global food shortages, first of plants, then in agriculture when feed for the animals was no longer available. On one of their few days off, tragedy strikes Tao’s young family, and they are forced on a gruelling journey to uncover the truth of what really happened.
The fascination of each character with bees is portrayed brilliantly: in fact, I found it to be infectious. It’s William’s narrative where this passion is most prominent – he observes them almost obsessively for his research, and there are moments where it feels like you’re literally inside a hive. As readers, we do get a ‘history of bees’ and I really enjoyed those parts of the narrative. I also loved that quite a few characters have a proper thirst for knowledge. I relate to that so much, and a chapter that takes place in a library really captured the joy that can come from reading.
“Alone she’s nothing, a part so tiny that it’s insignificant, but with the others she’s everything. Because together, they’re the hive.” – William
The bees’ central role in nature, which humanity both manipulates and relies upon, is explored through the three different generations. Evidently inspired by the current focus on environmental changes wrought by human industries, Lunde’s imagining of a future without bees is unnerving. It’s not just the harsh work or the lack of food and money: it’s the new social rules (a couple must be a certain age and have a certain amount in savings before they are permitted to have a child) and the secrecy of ‘The Committee’, China’s ruling authority. In an ironic twist, Lunde uses the way that bees work as a super-organism as inspiration for the organisation of human workers after ‘The Collapse’, the mass disappearance of bee colonies. The individual barely exists; they are significant only by their contribution to the whole community. Whereas in bee colonies, this structure is instilled with a sense of power, in Tao’s world, it is oppressive. What’s most overpowering in Tao’s narrative is the lack of hope: the acceptance that this is simply how things are and how they will continue.
Structurally, The History of Bees is great. Each character’s narrative is equally as gripping in itself as it is in relation to the overarching story. Lunde rotates between them, slowly but surely weaving the different strands together. This kind of structure reminded me of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (though The History of Bees is not quite so intricate – it has fewer characters, for one thing). A consistent focus on locked doors helps to reinforce the sense of mystery and secrecy across the whole narrative, but especially in Tao’s journey.
I also appreciated how the theme of bees and humanity’s relationship with nature merged with portrayals of relationships between children and parents. It was a clever way of interrogating the idea of legacies and inheritance – the focus on sons as the bearers of legacies in the human world is placed in contrast with the queens being the centre of bee colonies.
Personally, Tao’s relationship with her son, Wei-Wen, was especially poignant – the precarious, desperate world in which they live make her hopes for him more touching. It’s not about masculine pride or family legacy, which seems to be foremost for both William and George. For Tao, she wants to shield her child from the intense labouring that she must do; she wants him to have freedom and choice, and to flourish from that. In all three strands, though, is a journey of acceptance by these parents that the paths they lay for their children are not always those that are best for them to follow.
“We were both transformed into thin ice, like the first thin sheets that formed on ponds in the autumn, which shattered at the lightest touch.” – Tao
There are some captivating descriptive passages peppered throughout the story. Whether it’s William’s observations of bees, or George’s recollection of happy memories with his son, or Tao contemplating her marriage (above), Lunde’s use of language is skilful, drawing you right into the moment with the characters. This skill is also captivating in the presentation of landscapes, from small English villages, to farms, forests, and abandoned cities.
While I thought that Lunde used mini cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter, and the rotation of focus between the characters, exceptionally well, I was expecting more from the closing section, where the links between the narrative strands are revealed. It’s not badly written or riddled with clichés or anything like that. I simply think the tension that was built up suddenly dissipated into nothing. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the ending – it could be that I read too much into it, and that’s why I was disappointed.
I also found a lot of the dialogue in George’s narrative to be too stilted. It was useful for portraying his prickly, defensive personality, and how that affects his relationships with his family, but you know when it’s a bit too much?
Overall, I found The History of Bees to be a very interesting, thought-provoking read. I can just about get over my feelings about the ending because what comes before it is done so well. The plot itself was engaging, supported by the exploration of numerous concepts: legacies and inheritance, social structures, crises, the use of knowledge and research, and most importantly, human interference into natural occurrences. So many of these are particularly relevant in today’s world which makes The History of Bees a powerful, poignant novel.
Final observation: the jacket, the hardback cover, and the inside pages are equally gorgeous. I loved finding these little bees when I turned a page.
*As it is translated from Norwegian, there are a couple of sentences that are structured differently and might not seem to fit well.
** Originally published as Beines Historie by Aschehoug, Oslo, in 2015. Published by Scribner (Simon & Schuster), in 2017