#RivetingReviews: West Camel reviews THE HISTORY OF BEES by Maja Lunde

There is a key moment in the professional, personal and spiritual life of William Savage – one of The History of Bees’ three protagonists – when he realises that, by redesigning the standard beehive, bees can be “tamed by us, become our subjects”. By thinking of the new hive not as a house but as a laboratory and a factory – somewhere beekeepers can study and control the insects – William Savage, along with his colleagues specialising in the field of apiary, make the breakthrough that forms the centre of this expansive and powerful novel.

Savage’s story takes place in mid-nineteenth-century England. In early twenty-first-century America, his ancestor, George, is an industrial bee-keeper, witnessing first-hand the early worrying occurrences of CCD – Colony Collapse Disorder, the real-life phenomenon in which bees abandon hives overnight, bankrupting their owners and putting the human food chain at risk. The novel’s third protagonist, Tao, lives in late twenty-first century China, in what I’m sure every reader will hope is not their children’s future – a global dystopia that is the result of CCD, the disorder that can be traced back to the scientific breakthroughs made by Savage and his ilk 250 years before.

Maja Lunde’s debut adult novel, is therefore, a cautionary tale. Her point – that human interference in the natural order has far-reaching consequences we’d be wise to address now – is made adroitly and packs all the more punch because it is delivered via three very personal, very human stories. While William, George and Tao are all connected in some way by bees and beekeeping, their primary concerns are their relationships with their children. But it is no great effort to connect Lunde’s two main themes.

What makes this novel even more interesting, however, is the control Lunde maintains over her material. In many ways, she looks down on her characters and her plot in the same way that, as William says, “the sky … looked down upon me, and perhaps also God the Father … because this is how we shall look down on the bees”. Lunde, then, is a kind of literary apiarist, pulling out from the hive of her novel its various structures – its frames – and displaying to her reader the activities of its characters. This is not to say that there aren’t dramatic moments in the book – there are. But overall it is a quiet, and at times rather slow reading experience. Yet as the evidence from each, almost scientifically recorded, incident accumulates, the effect of the novel builds. As a reader you begin to trace the connections between the three plot strands and simultaneously develop a pit-of-the stomach sickness as you sense where we are heading.

Only a rare reader won’t close this book and go searching for more information about bee populations and solutions to CCD. This, no doubt, is Lunde’s intention: she exerts control even after her reader has finished this persuasive debut.

Reviewed by West Camel



Writen by Maja Lunde

Translated by Diane Oatley

Published by Scribner UK, 2017

West Camel

West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. www.westcamel.net.


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Category: The Nordic RiveterReviewsOctober 2017 - Nordic Countries


One comment

  1. I was interested in the way that Lunde leads the reader in a circle throughout the book. It’s humanity’s intention to control the bees and all aspects of agriculture that leads to trouble. As you point out – some of the responsibility for CCD lies in the attitude of humans, including scientist, William. His desire to use his understanding of bees to better control them and make them work for us is a step in the wrong direction. And yet, it is in his daughter’s hive design that eventually, and through the work of the other protagonists and their children, leads to renewed hope for both the bees and us – as long as there is a change of attitude in how we relate to the bees. So in the end, we come full circle with William’s work. The History of Bees is definitely a fascinating read!

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