“The History of Bees” is not really the history of bees. This becomes clear on the first page, a chapter titled “Tao” and set in a district in Sichuan, China, in the year 2098.
But then comes the second chapter, called “William,” set in England in 1851.
And then the third chapter, “George,” set in Ohio in 2007.
And so Maja Lunde establishes a pattern, sending her readers through the centuries, using these characters to show how better beehives were invented (that’s William), how pesticide-plagued bee colonies began to collapse (George), and how humans might come to be employed as pollinators, creeping among tree branches, delicately brushing each fruit blossom with a feather dipped in pollen (Tao).
In the wrong hands, this tack could seem gimmicky. But Lunde, a Norwegian author and screenwriter, threads a common string through these characters. The novel becomes far less about bees than about family — about how the relationship between parent and child can be passionate, desperate, tragic and uplifting.
Tao wants her young son to gain an education and so rise above life as a pollinator. When he’s whisked away by authorities after mysteriously collapsing, her reckless journey to an apocalyptic Beijing — a consequence of a bee-less, starving world — is wrenching. You want her to find him, but you’re also afraid she will.
William is a pathetic shopkeeper, derailed by an irrational need for a teacher’s approval. Depressed and bedridden, he is one day inspired to reclaim the respect of his dissolute son (and the teacher) by inventing a more efficient beehive. You want him to succeed, but you also dread his likely learning that dignity cares little for a business contract.
George is a beekeeper, and he, too, has a wayward son with no interest in taking on the family business — his son wants to be a journalist. When colony collapse disorder strikes George’s hives, he sees a lifetime’s work destroyed, along with the one thing he believed he could share with his son, and he is shattered.
Lunde is best known as a children’s author. This is her first novel for adults, but it’s hard not to think that her immersion in a youthful world informs her ability to write with a devastating elegance about the bond — or lack thereof — between parent and child.
You almost forget that this is, at heart, a novel about bees. So it’s a bit of a surprise when Lunde manages, in the final pages, to pull her common string tight and bring together these far-flung stories in a way that seems not at all contrived.
“A History of Bees” is a dark read, and yet it ends on a wavering note of optimism. It’s been likened to Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 sci-fi novel “Station Eleven,” with good reason.
Lunde has said that, upon its completion, she realized that she has more to say about humanity and nature, and that this is the first in a “climate quartet” of novels. She could become a new voice about the consequences that may lie in our future.
Kim Ode is a features writer at the Star Tribune. On Twitter: @Odewrites
The History of Bees
By: Maja Lunde.
Publisher: Touchstone, 352 pages, $26.