James Gault reviews The History of Bees by Maja Lunde
This is a book that needs to be read widely because it deals with a theme vital to the future of mankind. We all know the role of bees in pollination and we have heard warnings that their numbers are declining, posing a threat to future food supplies. For most of us, it is a threat we acknowledge intellectually but we don’t engage with it unless we are climate-change activists. But fiction has the advantage over news reports in that it can really arouse our emotions and get us involved. This apocalyptic tale of our over-exploitation of our environment does just that.
The novel is three stories merged into one book, a beginning story, a middle story and an end story. Each story revolves around a different character. The beginning is the story of William, who in the 1850s is part of the early development of modern bee-keeping. The middle is set in our own time in the USA, and chronicles the woes of George, a bee-keeper struggling against an environment which is becoming more and more hostile to his calling. The end story is set in a post-apocalypse Japan at the end of this century, where young mother Tao works in the fields to carry out the pollination task that ensure that food can still be produced in a world without bees.
Underlying these themes in each story is an illuminating insight into parent-child relationships, which is perhaps not surprising from an author known for her books for children and young people. She raises issues about parents trying to impose their own ambitions on their children and also on the relative values of sons against daughters. I was absolutely shocked, for example, when William’s daughter came up with in idea for which the father claimed all the credit, his only regret being that his wastrel son hadn’t been the one helping him.
While I found the author’s exposure of these themes extremely powerful, I was less happy with her choices of narrative style and use of language. She decided to interweave the three stories together, rather than tell each one in it’s entirety, in chronological order. I didn’t find this confusing but the constant switching from one story and one time to another meant I couldn’t maintain the level of interest in each to the extent they deserved. The stories all connect together in some way at the end of the book, so I suppose that was why she made this choice. In my view, the keeping of these interconnections as a kind of ‘wow’ moment at the end didn’t make up for the loss of narrative drive in each story.
The way the novel jumps back and forth between the three stories also emphasised another flaw which I found disconcerting. Each story is told in the first person; therefore three different narrators all from different countries and different times. And yet the ‘voices’ of the narrators were identical. This gave me the feeling that all three stories were being narrated by the same person. The book was translated from the original Norwegian, so maybe some of the nuances of language were lost. But perhaps a third-person narrative would have been more convincing.
Nevertheless, in spite of these criticisms, I have no hesitation in recommending The History of Bees as a book worth reading, simply because of the powerful way it approaches its very important themes.