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Of hives and hubris – ‘The History of Bees’

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Some of the best speculative fiction comes from taking a kernel of reality and extrapolating it both outward and inward, building a compelling and interesting world anchored by a baseline of truth.

Maja Lunde’s “The History of Bees” (Touchstone, $26) takes its truth from the as-yet largely unexplained disappearance of bees. From that one foundational point, she spins a haunting literary triptych; three narrative threads that are both operationally separate and fundamentally intertwined. Three tales – one past, one present, one future – relating facets of an overarching story.

In the year 1852, an Englishman named William battles through the lethargy of depression in an effort to reinvent and redefine man’s relationship with bees. He’s a seed merchant by trade and a scientist by passion; struck by epiphany after epiphany, yet still struggling to both follow his vision and maintain the health of both himself and his family.

In 2007, an American beekeeper named George is fully devoted to the old ways. Modern farming techniques hold little appeal for him. While his commitment to the traditional methods has led to some complications with regards to his business, he has high hopes that his son will take over and continue, but as it turns out, the young man has ambitions of his own that don’t necessarily include beehives.

And in 2098, a Chinese woman named Tao is one of a legion of workers tasked with painting pollen onto fruit trees now that the bees are no more. But in the midst of her tightly regimented existence, something unexplained happens to her young son, leaving her to try and make her way from the country to the city and through an urban landscape that has largely crumbled, a collapsed civilization barely clinging to the craps of what was once a great society.

And through all times … the bees.

There’s a lovely contradiction to “The History of Bees.” There’s a simplicity to the stories being told, yet there’s a wonderful complexity to the manner in which they unfold.

At first glance, these three narratives feel apart, with only the most basic of connective tissues. There’s this idea that man’s relationship with the natural world is far more tenuous than we ever allow ourselves to imagine; each point on the timeline shines its own spotlight on that fragility.

But these stories are also about family dynamics and how our relationships with one another – particularly the ones between parent and child – can be just as tenuous, just as difficult to maintain. Each of these distinct narratives marks a definition of interpersonal fragility just as it does that connection between mankind and Mother Nature.

What Lunde has done with “The History of Bees” is create something altogether unexpected. There’s an incredibly engaging demarcation of style – one narrative thread reads like historical fiction, another like contemporary literary fiction, the third like dystopian sci-fi – without any thematic or tonal sacrifice. Basically, these three storylines operate differently and distinctly, yet fit together exquisitely. It’s a remarkable feat of writing acumen.

Still, as admirable as the stylistic execution is, what makes “The History of Bees” such a truly exceptional reading experience is the substance. Lunde is a gifted storyteller, one who uses her considerable skills to put forth a powerful and engaging tale. The bees might be central figures – both in their presence and their absence – but it is the people, with their hopes and their hurts, that allow this book to burn so brightly.

“The History of Bees” is a powerful work, meticulously constructed, deeply felt and ultimately unforgettable.

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