Book review: The History of Bees by Maja Lunde

The History of Bees by Maja Lunde
The History of Bees by Maja Lunde

The honeycombed link between the bee’s battle for survival and mankind’s increasingly precarious existence on Earth is explored in a dazzling literary novel from Norway.

Maja Lunde’s exciting blend of ecology, human relationships and soaraway imagination has already caused a buzz in Europe and now this flawless translation is set to seduce the English-speaking world.

Author and screenwriter Lunde has penned several books for children but in her first adult novel she harnesses both her visual storytelling skills and her empathy with young people to study the complex bonds between parents and their offspring, and the dire consequences of a future without one of our most remarkable insects.

The History of Bees, the first debut to receive the prestigious Norwegian Bookseller’s Prize, spans three timelines, three continents and three families whose livelihoods depend – in one way or another – on bees.

As the neglectful planet reaps the devastating harvest of an ecological suicide in which our precious bees have been allowed to die, three generations of beekeepers from the past, present and future learn just how inextricably linked are humanity and nature.

In Hertfordshire in 1851, seed merchant and biologist William is so depressed that he struggles to get out of bed. He needs to make money from his small shop to care for his large family but what he really wants is to study natural science.

He had always hoped that his one son Edmund would follow in his footsteps but it is his eldest daughter Charlotte who shares William’s passion for science and is determined to rouse her father from his depression.

Their love of bees finally inspires William to shake off his torpor and set to work on designing a new style of hive that will stop these industrious insects from leaving in vast swarms.

In Ohio, America, in 2007, bee farmer George is fighting an uphill battle against modern farming methods which rely heavily on pesticides and now he is struggling to understand a threat to his business that has never before been seen. Long-established colonies of worker bees are simply flying away overnight leaving the queen and the honey behind.

George hopes that his teenage son Tom can help to save the business but Tom is a college academic and dreams of a career not as a beekeeper but as a writer.

In Sichuan, China, in 2098, the world is struggling to feed itself after Colony Collapse Disorder and the ensuing breakdown of society became a catastrophic reality many years ago.

Tao is among bands of anonymous Chinese pollinators who work 12 hours a day climbing into trees ‘like oversize birds’ with pots of ‘gold gossamer’ pollen to paint onto fruit blossoms now that bees are extinct.

Tao and her husband Kuan have invested everything in their three-year-old son Wei-Wen but when he falls into a coma in the orchard where his mother works, he is taken away by the authorities and disappears.

Tao is kept in the dark about where Wei-Wen has been taken and his condition but unable to accept that she will never see him again, she sets out on a gruelling journey to find out exactly what has happened to him.

From a pioneering past and a troubled present to a dystopian future, and through loss, despair, love and the sweet promise of hope, Lunde plays out a fascinating, broad-spectrum drama which speaks volumes about the fragility of our eco system.

The History of Bees is a unique and thought-provoking story about the dangers of modern farming practices and the use of toxic pesticides; a cautionary tale of a nightmare not-too-distant world bereft of bees and food.

And yet, amidst all the trauma and tragedy, Lunde’s elegant, powerful and timely novel provides a light in the darkness and an escape from the apocalypse.

Heeding the warnings, a change of direction, and a determination to step back from the brink could yet save the bee… and humanity.

(Scribner, hardback, £14.99)