Contains mild spoilers!
The History of Bees was the first book I finished after reading Ulysses, so it had a lot to live up to. While it’s definitely not as dense and challenging as Ulysses, it was definitely a good read, and I read the entire thing in roughly three sittings. I knew very little about Maja Lunde before starting the book, and was pleased to find out after she has a very successful writing career, with several children’s books, and a second adults book in the Climate Quartet series (The History of Bees being the first), Blue. It’s exciting to see an author planning to put out a four book series focused on climate issues, as the climate emergency is the biggest problem humanity is facing in our history, and the more it’s written about and talked about, the more pressure can be put on governments and businesses to make impactful changes. Of course, writing about climate change is in no way a solution, but it’s important to be loud about it, to keep pushing the potential impacts if nothing does change, and this is where writing can come in, offering a potential future world, and the 2098 of The History of Bees is definitely not a world I want my descendants to be growing up in.
The History of Bees was described as similar to Cloud Atlas, as both feature a variety of interconnected stories told across different time periods that are all revealed to be interlinking, but that’s about as far as the comparison really goes. The book follows three protagonists – William in 1852, George in 2007 and Tao in 2098. The thing that ties all three of these protagonists together is, of course, their relation to bees. William is determined to develop the perfect beehive, George is a bee farmer struggling to keep his family together, and Tao lives in a world defined by the lack of bees. In a world without bees, humans are forced to be the pollinators, working long hours every day to ensure just enough food for survival can be harvested. George is living just on the brink of collapse, hearing stories of bee colonies disappearing across America and hoping he won’t be next. In 1852, William is coming out of a depressive episode, finding his will to live and love for innovation and bees again. These three stories are told in alternating chapters, and the links between them (which I will leave a mystery) are only developed towards the end of the novel.
I struggled a little bit to get invested in the characters’ lives when I was given such short blocks of time with them, but as I moved through the novel I did start to develop more of an interest in their lives and stories. George was definitely the one I felt the least for, as I didn’t like his attitude towards his wife and son and felt as though his son was entirely validated in pushing his father away. I really felt for Tao however, with the sudden illness and unexplained disappearance of her son and her desperation to find him. William was the one I really warmed up to, in part because of his developing relationship with his daughter, Charlotte, throughout the book, which made him seem far more three-dimensional, and gave him a reason to try to better himself, which I felt he does.
I liked the subtle reveal of the way the stories interlinked, and the fact that despite being connected, the point of the book wasn’t a clever connection, which is something I didn’t like about Cloud Atlas. A certain book keeps cropping up across the different time periods and is important to different characters in very different ways, and the personal connections across time periods are kept subtle and believable, while Cloud Atlas tips more into fantasy. I was also excited to read the ending of Tao’s story, to see how the past was playing into her story, which seemed for much of the book to have deviated from the central narrative of the bees.
The overall style of the book was good, though it would’ve been nice to have had some more stylistic variation between the time periods to help tell them apart, because in a couple of places I got a bit confused about where I was and who I was with, though that was possibly also in part due to the rather short chapters, which gave the book a bit of a fragmented sense that the interlinking narrative fails to entirely unite. The writing style was definitely enjoyable, however, and not too challenging, so I would recommend this book to someone looking for a fairly laid back read. Despite mild confusion around the characters, I found the narrative very easy to understand, and felt the prose flowed well.
I would recommend this book to friends, particularly those already interested in climate issues (and, more to the point, those who aren’t interested in climate issues, in the hopes it might kick start an interest) and to people who enjoy multiple protagonists and are looking for a well-flowing, easy to understand read.
Rating: 3.5 stars.
This review also published on my GoodReads, www.goodreads.com/ells_f