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Review: The History of Bees - Maja Lunde

Genre: Literary Fiction Published: Atria Books / Touchstone, 2017 (originally published 2015) My rating: 3/5 stars

"To live in nature and with nature, we have to move away from our own nature”.

Before saying anything else, I want to give credit to The History of Bees for its incredibly ambitious set up, thought provoking nature and boldness to send a message on an important subject that it ultimately affects people worldwide: our climate. If this brings awareness to even a small number of people, I’d argue that it has already reached is goal, and deserves some praise for that. That being said: despite these great efforts, this novel was held back by a lacking execution, condemning it to the limbo of 3-star reads that were good but not great.

The History of Bees interweaves three family stories, set over different periods in time, with an exploration of what would happen (naturally, economically and politically) if the species of bees were to die out. Chronologically, the first story is set in 1852, and follows a down on his luck biologist struggling with depressive episodes. When he envisions a new type of beehive that will change beekeeping for generations to come, he hopes that this will turn the tides of his life. Secondly, we follow George Savage, a contemporary beekeeper, who struggles to understand his adolescent son and potential successor. Lastly, there is the story of Tao, a young woman living in a dystopian future, who works in pollination. After her son is taken to a state hospital after a mysterious and tragic accident in the fields, she undertakes a journey to find out the truth.

What links these stories, other than the reoccurring motif of bees, are themes of family, generational disparity and the conflict between an individual interest, and the benefit of the collective. In combining these story threads, Maja Lunde forces the reader to see the bigger picture at hand (something the characters themselves cannot do from their own narrower perspective). This was a smart choice that is completely consistent with the environmentalist themes, but it also lead to some problems I had with the stories themselves. To start with our contemporary storyline: George embodies “the current American mentality” of putting the needs of the individual above all else. The way this was done lacked some nuance for me, making George come off uneducated and very unlikable, which destroyed my connection to this narrative as a whole. Than there is the narrative of William, who sits somewhere in the middle; working on a project to benefit generations to come, yet also craving personal recognition for it. I was fine with his story, although I would have liked to see a little more character depth of him as well. Major compliments to the author for making his voice very distinct and suitable for his time period however. Last (and this is where I had some issues with this novel), there is the narrative with the most pagetime: Tao’s. Her society represents our future attitude: the individual needs mee nothing in the scope of the community at large. I felt this was very well done, and I enjoyed Tao’s story the most out of all of them. She is arguably the most likable character, and her motherly instinct and the way she reacts to the mystery of her missing son felt very genuine to me. What I didn’t like, is how the central motif of the story basically spoils the mystery from the start. As soon as it happens, you as a reader can guess exactly what has happened, and it takes Tao an excruciatingly long time to catch up.

I didn’t enjoy the ending, partly because of that, and partly because of the moralizing nature of it. Personally, I’d have preferred it if the author had left it up to the readers themselves to figure out the moral of the story, instead of spelling it out directly within the final pages.

Despite the ending, I had an okay time reading this novel, and my critique mostly comes from a place of seeing a lot of potential for greatness, that unfortunately got stuck at a “just fine” level. Maja Lunde’s sequel to The History Of Bees (The End of The Ocean), is scheduled to be released in translation in 2020, and I’m still very interested to see how she tackles the topic of rising oceans and drink water shortages.

As a final note: major compliments to Diane Oatley. I read a lot of translations, and can all too often tell what they original text may have been. In this case, the translation was completely seamless and flowed like honey. I'm happy to see the publisher went with the same translator for the sequel as well.

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