The History of Bees
The History of Bees, published in 2015, is the debut adult novel of Norwegian author Maja Lunde and seemed an appropriate choice for our first book review feature, given the subject matter! A dystopian novel centred around a future in which the bees have died out completely, The History of Bees is split into three separate narratives that take place during three separate points in history.
In nineteenth century England, William Savage is a biologist and seed merchant afflicted with melancholy and depression. When we first meet him he is bedridden, lacking even the strength required to stand, and reflects ruefully on his past: the thrill he had once felt towards scientific discovery and the love he had once held for his wife, a relationship that has soured greatly over the years.
However, when his eldest and only son brings him a book about bees, William rediscovers his passion and enthusiasm for nature and determines not only to study the bees (which, at the time, there was little known about) but to build them a revolutionary hive which will make the tending of them easier, safer, and less harmful for the bees themselves.
Meanwhile, George is a bee farmer in Ohio in 2007 who wants only to pass on the family business to his college-aged son, Tom. Unfortunately, Tom has little desire to go into the beekeeping business; his passion and talent instead lies in writing and journalism. George is desperate to reconnect with his son but only succeeds in driving him further away. In fact, George’s single-mindedness also affects his relationship with his wife, who wants to leave the farm and move to Florida, something George is adamantly against.
In a world where technologies are rapidly evolving, George stubbornly sticks to what he knows and the hives — which he builds and handpaints himself — which have been in his family for generations. This self-centered stubbornness is also applied to his relationship with his son — as George refuses to support him in any pursuit that isn’t beekeeping — and his wife — whom George refuses to listen to in regards to her dreams in life.
For George, the bee farm is a generational and unchanging thing, something that will continue in perpetuity as long as there is someone of his family’s blood to run the farm, but there is an unforeseen problem: the bees are dying.
In the year 2098, when our third story takes place, it has been nearly half a century since the last bee died out, triggering what is now known as “The Collapse.” Living in China, Tao, along with millions of other workers, spends long days painstakingly handpainting pollen onto trees to bring them to bear fruit.
But on one of their rare days off, Tao and her husband, Kuan, take their three-year-old son Wei-Wen to the forest, where the young boy falls quickly and inexplicably ill. The child is quickly rushed to the hospital for treatment but his parents are refused access to him, unil Tao is told by a nurse that her son has been taken to Beijing for more advanced care. Desperate for answers, Tao embarks on a cross-country journey to the post-apocalyptic city on the last of her and Kuan’s savings to find out just what has become of her son, and along the way uncovers a secret that could change the course of the world.
For much of the book all three narratives are kept entirely separate but in the end it becomes clear how they weave together, each story instrumental to the one that comes after, despite the time and physical distance between them. This method of storytelling is perhaps detrimental through the first half of the book (I, at least, was far more invested in Tao’s story than in William’s or George’s, and with no seeming connection between the three I had little interest in reading the other narratives) but the way the stories tie together in the end is beautiful and well worth the wait.
The History of Bees is not just a story about bees.
It’s a story about parenthood, and the tenuous threads of connection a parent is desperate to establish with their child. Yearning for recognition — something he never received from his father or his mentor — William seeks to leave a lasting impression on the scientific world, but more than that, he desires the approval of his son. William’s desperation to capture his son’s interest is mirrored in George’s need for Tom to succeed him. Wei-Wen is one of the sole bright spots in Tao’s life and when he falls ill and is taken away, she is willing to do whatever it takes to get him back — exhibiting that a bond between a mother and her child is stronger than one between husband and wife, and is stronger than any promise of a future.
It’s a story about breaking and forming bonds of love. Each of the three main characters is so focused on themselves and their goals that the relationships between them and their loved ones strain, sometimes to the point of no repair. This inward focus is in direct contrast to the bees whom the story revolves around: for bees, the interest is always in the hive, never in the self. Only in learning to work for the greater good do any of these bonds stand a chance of rehealing.
It’s a story about legacy. William seeks to leave his legacy in the history books by inventing a first-of-its-kind beehive; George seeks to leave his legacy in the farm he’s poured his whole life into and plans to pass on to his son; and the legacy Tao leaves in the search of her son is of an entirely different nature.
But yes, it is still about bees. The History of Bees is the title of a book inside this book, but this book itself serves as its own history: from the excitement at “discovery” of the bees and the desire to tame them, to an exploration of the symbiotic nature between humans and bees on the eve of civilization’s downfall, to a future when humans must do the jobs of the now-revered bees because that is the only way to stave off starvation.
It’s a sobering reminder of what could become of humanity should the bees truly die out, and it’s a dire warning of what happens when humankind tries to bend a force of nature to their own will.
In a story where all three main characters are, at times, unlikeable (making it sometimes trying to slog through their perspectives), one has to wonder if the true protagonists are the bees that keep humankind alive, and if the humans are just the vessel by which they tell their story.