Review: The History of Bees by Maja Lunde

Let’s talk Maja Lunde for a minute. Hailing from Norway, Maja had already found success in television screenplays and children’s novels.
But why stop there? With nine books under her belt she then took on her very first adult novel, ‘The History of Bees’ in 2015.

And what a book it is!

Winner of the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize, the book is now an international best seller, with rights currently sold in 19 languages for publication in over 30 countries.

But if you’re thinking a story on the extinction of the bee isn’t your bag – never fear. The glue that holds this book together – and keeps the reader up until 3am (true story), is the relationship between parent and child, husband and wife, friend and foe.

The story is centered around three people in very different times, who have more in common than meets the eye. All are dealing with the presence (or lack) of bees in their lives, and are intrinsically linked in more ways than the reader can even imagine.

England, 1851. 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 honour and fame.

United States, 2007. George is a beekeeper and fights 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—and is kept in the dark about his whereabouts and condition—she sets out on a gruelling journey to find out what happened to him.

The symbolism throughout this book is fascinating, particularly the comparison of the role of a worker bee in the hive versus the role of a human being in the world.
As William states, ‘each tiny insect was subordinate to the greater whole.’ In an increasingly selfish world, a finger is pointed at us all. What is the point of our hopes, dreams and desires if they are not to benefit the world we live in? What will our legacy leave behind for generations to come? Are we choosing self-preservation over self-sacrifice?

The worker bee devotes its life to the colony, as just one of many cogs that keep the hive running. This role is raised and questioned repeatedly throughout the book.

Tao was forced into the role of a worker bee herself, pollinating the flowers now that the bees were gone. This was her life. But she wanted different for her son. She wanted him to focus on his studies so he could be one of the lucky few who are able to continue their education.

George is possibly the only content worker bee in this story. He doesn’t question the methods of generations before him and works himself into the ground trying to keep the family business afloat. He is desperate for his son to fill his shoes, but to his dismay his son questions the very practise of bee keeping and appears more interested in furthering his education – thus rejecting George’s ‘colony’.

And William. Oh William *cringe* (you’ll know what scenes I’m cringing at when you read the book..)

William is an intellect who wanted to continue his education under his mentor’s wing. But ‘alas’, he ends up married with children. With mouths to feed, he is forced to put aside his intelligence to provide for his family. This sends him into a depression, which is only momentarily lifted when he dreams of a new invention.
He saw the role of a provider for his family as another form of the worker bee, one in which he would lose his own identity.

All three characters are selfish in their own way. And while completely fictitious, the story is uncomfortably real. Each character fights with the concept of sacrificing oneself for the greater cause – and our unwillingness to do this, to the detriment of ourselves, our world and our future.

So there you have it, ‘The History of Bees’ is not really about the history of bees (although I did spend a lot of time researching Colony Collapse Disorder and signing anti-pesticide petitions after I finished!). Instead this is a deeply poignant story about human relationships, family values and our perception of a successful life. Would you give up your success if it meant the world would be better for others to come?

Rating: I give this book a solid 4.5 out of 5. Not a full five points because at times I felt the Chinese culture and the olden-day lingo was lacking, although perhaps the English translation lost some of the much-needed nuances. Either way, this is an amazing, thought-provoking  book and is easily my favourite of 2018 so far!

Head to your local bookstore or library to pick up a copy!

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