All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The History Of Bees by Maja Lunde

on September 25, 2017

The History Of Bees
Maja Lunde
Scribner
2017, 337p
Copy courtesy Simon & Schuster AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

England, 1852. William is a biologist and seed merchant, who sets out to build a new type of beehive one that will give both him and his children honor and fame.

United States, 2007. George is a beekeeper fighting an uphill battle against modern farming, but hopes that his son can be their salvation.

China, 2098. Tao hand paints pollen onto the fruit trees now that the bees have long since disappeared. When Tao’s young son is taken away by the authorities after a tragic accident, she sets out on a grueling journey to find out what happened to him.

Haunting, illuminating, and deftly written, The History of Bees joins these three very different narratives into one gripping and thought-provoking story that is just as much about the powerful bond between children and parents as it is about our very relationship to nature and humanity.

At first glance these three stories have little in common other than bees. William in 1852 England is inspired to finally rise from a deep depression to build a new type of beehive, something innovative that will take the world by storm. This will not only grant him the academic prestige and praise that he craves, able to converse with his peers without feeling like a failure, but also finally he hopes to impress his son Edmund. William’s single minded dedication to trying to make Edmund proud of him and inspired by him means that he completely overlooks a more intelligent mind within his family, someone who supports and encourages him and possesses ideas and innovations of their own.

In 2007 America, George comes from a long line of bee farmers. He builds all his hives by hand, eschewing a more modern way of ordering them in bulk. His way takes time and effort he can ill afford to spare. His wife is losing interest in the farm, constantly dropping hints about friends who have retired to Florida and the lifestyle they are enjoying there. But George will not hear of it, determined to pass the farm onto his disinterested son who has just gone off to college and is discovering that there’s a whole world out there that doesn’t revolve around the bees.

And then there’s Tao in 2098. Between George and Tao, something catastrophic happened across the world and now the bees are gone. In China, people like Tao hand paint the pollen, hours and hours a day of back breaking work. In her free hours she tries to drill numbers and the like into her three year old son, trying desperately to keep him from a future that mirrors hers. One day Tao gives into her husband’s more laid back style, agreeing to a picnic that has incredible consequences.

This book does get off to quite a slow start and I’ll admit that I struggled with it at various times throughout, particularly with the narratives of both William and George. William constantly seeks to impress people that either cannot/will not be impressed or basically aren’t deserving of the effort. It’s obvious from the first appearance that William’s son Edmund is a wastrel, coddled by his mother who willfully ignores a probable addiction issue. This was such a highlight of the attitudes of the time – William pours so much into thinking about and trying to impress his only son, barely interested in his various daughters. And in his own way, George is the same in 2007. He wants to much for his son to take over the farm, to continue on the work of generations that he’s blinded to the fact that things are changing. His son is in college, finding his feet, discovering his own interests in life. These two fathers just want to connect with their sons in the ways that they know how and find themselves rebuffed in different ways or struggling to really express themselves and what they desire for their sons in the future. George can’t understand college, or an English degree, his life has been the farm and bees. He nostalgically remembers a time he took his son, then very young, across the country to a farm that paid for the bees to pollinate his blueberries and he seeks to recreate that trip, hoping it will help bring them together and envisage a shared future. Instead George faces catastrophe and ruin when a mysterious phenomena begins sweeping the world.

In Tao’s life, we glimpse how that phenomena impacted the world. Now she works pollinating by hand as there are no bees left to do the job (fun fact: in this book, Australia was the last country to fall). Tao’s son is still very young and like William and George she has hopes and dreams for him, that he live a particular life. She wants him to be smart, to escape the grind of back breaking work for poor pay and little benefits. To always be poor, to be constantly scrimping and saving for the future (it seems that 2098 China does not have a pension plan). When her son is taken by the authorities, Tao is spurred into action, giving up everything she and her husband have worked for in order to find if not him, than answers. Tao finds more than she bargained for, her love for her son and her desire for answers taking her to a ruined city and showing her the true devastation of her country. From her son’s accident may come a place of hope, even of regeneration, even if life will never be the same again.

I find Tao perhaps the easiest character to connect with and I enjoyed the author’s interpretation of what China in 2098 with no bees might be like. It was bleak and we aren’t sure what the rest of the world is like because it seems that Tao doesn’t really have much access to outside information. I really appreciated the way the story began to knit the three parts together towards the end, particularly when Tao begins her investigation and research and watches a documentary on beekeepers who went through the catastrophe.

I didn’t know a huge amount about colony collapse disorder before reading this book and it’s one of those things – since I finished it, I’ve seen it referenced twice and heard it once in a TV show. I’ve done a bit of reading and I was surprised to discover just how much I don’t know about bee farming and how big the market of “renting” bee colonies is by farmers, who rely on them to pollinate their crops. It’s huge business and produces a large amount of the world’s food supply. Without bees, surely we would all face a future similar to Tao’s – climbing trees to delicately brush pollen, struggling to get enough done to produce enough food for everyone.

In the end I did like this book and the various messages it was attempting to convey but at the times it did feel quite slow and sometimes the switch between narratives pulled me out of the stories, made me wish I was still with the previous character. I was always looking forward to Tao’s story, followed by George but I had little interest in William’s story, even though I understood its role in the future stories. I just found William’s inability to really see quite tedious.

Some really beautiful parts in this story, some others didn’t work so well for me. A bit of a mixed bag but I’d try another book by Maja Lunde in the future. This was originally published in Norwegian in 2015 and I didn’t see a translator listed in my copy so perhaps the author translated the work herself. I read that it’s her first adult novel (definitely an ambitious one) so I’d still be interested in what she produces next.

6/10

Book #160 of 2017


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