The History of Bees by Maja Lunde – Book Review

I’ve always been fascinated by what if scenarios in fiction, and the one explored by this Norwegian author is devastatingly simple: what would happen to the human society if the bees went extinct? Spread across almost 250 years and three stories, all involving bees to some degree, Lunde’s book finishes with a tentative note of optimism but not before taking the reader on a dark ride of dashed hopes and bleak prospects for our world.

Other than a cautionary tale, the major thread of the novel is the bond between parents and children, the joy and heartbreak it brings, and the different legacies we leave behind. While Lunde doesn’t experiment with style to the degree of, say, Cloud Atlas, the novel is a mix of historical, modern and speculative fiction, only spelling out the direct connections between the three narratives at the very end.

The book begins in the year 2098, when there are no bees left to pollinate the plants and trees, and China is one of the better-off countries thanks to its practice of manual pollination, though the ghost of famine is never far away. Tao is one of the lowly workers labouring all day in a massive orchard, and dreaming of a better life for her three-year-old son. When, on a rare day of leisure, Tao’s son is mysteriously hurt and taken away by the blank-faced authorities, she resolves to track him down all the way to Beijing.

The second story visits England in 1851, and follows William Savage, a failed natural scientist and equally failed shopkeeper, who spends his days in bed in a depressed and unwashed stupor. Despite showing promise earlier on, married life and seven children made him abandon his aspirations. But then William gets a new lease on life when he’s inspired to design a more efficient beehive that would hopefully secure a brighter future for him and his family.

The third story, set rather worryingly in the modern world in 2007, sees the first sinister signs of the future bee collapse. George Savage, a beekeeper in Ohio, has spent his life sticking to the old-fashioned ways, hand-crafting his beehives and resisting the modern farming methods. He expects his only son to carry on the family tradition, but Tom has very different ideas about his future.

The book’s clear and elegant prose was a pleasure to read (kudos of course must be given to the English translator). Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for dystopia, but I found myself enjoying Tao’s part of the novel the most; her story is also the most dynamic one because its future is not set in stone. Tao’s world is frighteningly plausible, and what makes it so is the lack of over-the-top scenarios often found in dystopian sci-fi (not that I have anything against the more fantastical takes on the nightmare future, mind).

Tao’s life is meagre and restricted, but there’s no big evil authoritarian regime to be taken down, and no Hunger Games to endure. In terms of characters, Tao is easiest to like and sympathise with, but also perhaps the least complex. George’s stubbornness and William’s self-absorption at times make them hard to like, but their flaws and difficult relationships with their children also make them feel like more interesting characters.

Other than bees and human relationships, the three stories are bound by a haunting sense of melancholy, reminiscent of other grounded speculative fiction like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. An engrossing and quietly powerful read.

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