In Translation: Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees (Bienes historie)

Knowing my love of reading and joy in discovering new Norwegian works, my parents gifted me Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees in Norwegian over a year ago. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to read it. It is such an interestingly structured and thought-provoking book about humans’ relationship to bees as well as relationships and expectations between family members. I really enjoyed it and highly recommend it, and luckily, now non-Norwegian readers in the US can enjoy it as well since it very recently came out in translation here.

I’m always curious about how works in original language compare to their translated versions. Usually, I just read my Norwegian books in Norwegian, but this time I actually had the opportunity to read it in English as well. (The US publisher Touchstone kindly provided me with a digital advanced readers copy.) I was impressed by Diane Oatley’s translation. It was a very smooth reading experience in English. Nothing jumped out at me as being different from the Norwegian edition. In particular, I was impressed with how well she treated the different language usage by each of the main characters.

Though I haven’t seen the American edition’s physical cover in person yet, I hear it’s gorgeous! It shimmers and is textured. I may just have to buy myself a physical copy of the American hardcover just for the cover.

The novel is made up of three distinct storylines revolving around bees. It’s basically a look at the role of bees in the past, present, and future from the perspective of a family in each of those time periods, and the chapters alternate between these three narratives. The first storyline begins in England in 1852 when beehives are being perfected, the second one in the United States in 2007 when there is an increase in the number of colony collapse disorders being reported, and the last one in China in 2098 when humans have had to resort to hand-pollination due to the total collapse of bees. As the book progresses, the reader begins to see how the three families’ stories intersect. Once the book is finished, it’s interesting to look back and notice the common threads that weren’t obvious before.

On top of it being a book about human’s relationship and reliance on bees, it is also about family relations and expectations. It looks at husband-and-wife relationships as well as relationships and expectations between parents and their children. It is not a smooth journey for any of them. The most heart-breaking family dynamic is that of William’s family in England. William puts all his time and energy into trying to prove his worth to his son. However, it is his daughter Charlotte who is interested and eager to learn from her father and help him with his work.

Each of the narratives was very engaging, and it didn’t take long before I was totally absorbed in the book. My favorite narrative was that of Tao in China. It was a depressing and grim world she lived in, but her quest to find out what happened to her son when he suddenly got sick and was whisked away by authorities without any explanation was a definite page-turner. Through the different storylines, I not only learned about the history and practices of beekeeping, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but I also got a glimpse of a world suffering from a total bee collapse, which was unnerving. Luckily, there was a glimmer of hope at the end.

My only complaint of the book was that in each of the three families, the hopes for the future were placed on a son. I understand that might have had to be the case for England in the 1850s, but it didn’t need to be that way in both the 2007 and 2098 narratives. Having the emphasis be on a daughter in one of those two later time periods would have been okay, I believe.

Overall, this was a unique novel combining dystopian, contemporary, and historical fiction into a very engaging and thought-provoking piece, which will stay with me for a long time.

The History of Bees is the first book in a planned series called The Climate Quartet. Maja Lunde explains The Climate Quartet on her website as follows:

“I realized I was nowhere near done writing about man and nature, neither had I stopped imagining a future where the consequences of the way we treat our wonderful earth has become ever more grave than what we see today. And from these thoughts, the idea of writing four, loosely connected books evolved, each one a stand-alone novel emphasizing specific, clima related themes: Insects, water, animals, and finally seeds and all things that grow.”

“Each novel has parallel storylines that play out both in our time and somewhere in our not-too-distant future, in addition to gazing back at our past. All four explore humans in nature and the consequences of the choices we make, not only with regards to nature and the climate, but also the people around us. Because it is through the exploration of our closest boundaries – within families, between lovers, between parents and children – one best sees the reflections of the larger picture.”

The next novel in the series, Blue, comes out this fall in Norway. I’m eagerly awaiting its publication.

Book Details:

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What I’ve Read: Vidunderbarn (Child Wonder) by Roy Jacobsen

Recently, I read Roy Jacobsen’s Vidunderbarn (Child Wonder) for my Scandinavian Book Group. I always make a point of reading a Norwegian book in anticipation of (or during) our annual summer trip to Norway to brush up on my Norwegian, but I don’t often read another beyond that. I’m grateful for discovering this book group because it’s given me an added incentive to search out new (to me) Norwegian authors and carve out more time to read Norwegian.

I first became aware of Roy Jacobsen when I was home in Oslo during the summer of 2016. A Roy Jacobsen book, Hvitt hav (published 2015), was on the display of top 10 paperbacks at a local bookstore, and another of his books, De usynlige (published 2013), was on a table of popular books on sale. I was happy to find a contemporary Norwegian non-crime author who wrote novels set in Norway, and I made a mental note to consider him for a future read.

When it came time to pick the next read for the Scandinavian Book Group, the other members of the group were happy to make the next pick a Norwegian one in my honor (it was my first meeting with them). The only requirement was that it had to be available in English, and they preferred a non-crime book. They had already read Jacobsen’s The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles (Hoggerne, published 2005), so I suggested Child Wonder (Vidunderbarn, published 2009). The description and reviews sounded interesting, and it had received the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize in 2009 which made it even more promising.

Child Wonder takes place in Norway in the early 1960’s and is about 10-year Finn who lives with his working mother in an apartment complex in a working-class suburb of Oslo. He is a boy who does well in school and enjoys playing outside with his friends. He and his mother get along well. Then their world begins to change. First, they convert Finn’s bedroom into a room that they can rent out, and soon a lodger is staying with them in their apartment. And he brings along a television that ends up in the shared family room. Next, they welcome Linda, Finn’s unknown 6-year old half-sister, into their family.

The book looks at their life together for a little over a year through the eyes of Finn. We see Finn’s relationship with the lodger take shape. We see Finn being a surprisingly mature support and help to his new half-sister. We see his relationship with his mother progress. We see Finn wonder about his worth and place in the family. We also begin to understand that the mother is struggling with something unknown to Finn.

My favorite part of the book is the summer they spend on the island of Håøya, the largest island in the inner Oslo Fjord. The lodger lets them borrow his 6-person tent that is set up on the island. Finn and his half-sister spend a few weeks there enjoying the “green paradise”.

One of the things that makes this book interesting is that Finn is an unreliable narrator. He is young and obviously doesn’t know or understand everything yet. He also doesn’t share everything he experiences. We are left to question and wonder about what we read, in particular about the half-sister (there’s something not right about her), the lodger and the mother’s relationship with him, and the nature of the mother’s struggle. It makes for a good discussion with others who have read the book.

I actually read part of the book in English (the e-book is available through Los Angeles Public Library). Jacobsen’s writing style consisted of very long sentences with very few periods and it slowed down my reading pace, so I had to switch over to English for a few chapters to get through it a little faster in order to finish in time for the book group meeting.

It was interesting to read part of it in translation. It was a British English translation so I had to think twice about some translated words and phrases. In particular, the British word “estate,” used very often, did not suggest the right meaning to me, but I understood what was meant. I found the translation to be consistent with Jacobsen’s writing style. One thing that shocked me, however, was that the translator didn’t just translate, he actually added to the English text. I noticed it in one case, but since I only read a small part in both languages, it made me wonder what other additions or changes the translator may have made in the rest of the book.

I enjoyed the book very much. This was a character-driven story that was both heart-warming and heart-breaking at times and that kept me questioning and wondering, even after finishing the book. I’m open to giving one of his newer books a chance. Norwegian readers, please let me know if you have a recommendation – whether it’s one of Roy Jacobsen’s books or another Norwegian read.

Book Details:

  • Norwegian Title: Vidunderbarn
  • Author: Roy Jacobsen (born 1954)
  • Norwegian Publication Date: 2009
  • English Title: Child Wonder
  • Translator: Don Bartlett with Don Shaw
  • US Publication Date: 2011
  • Awards: Norwegian Booksellers Award (2009)

You can support what I do on this website by purchasing the book at Amazon (or any other book or item for that matter). AVikingInLA is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com. At no extra cost to you, you support my work. Thank you.

What I’ve Read: Lars Mytting’s Svøm med dem som drukner (The Sixteen Trees of the Somme)

Svoem-med-dem-som-druknerLars Mytting’s Svøm med dem som drukner was my Norwegian read this year in anticipation of my yearly trip to Norway. I had not heard of the book, nor the author, until I received it from my parents for my birthday. It came highly recommended from friends of theirs, and it had received the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize for 2014. I started reading it without any ideas of what it was about.

Not only did the book meet all my criteria for my Norwegian book selection (it was by a Norwegian author, it was in Norwegian bokmål, and it generally took place in Norway), but it had the added bonus of brining alive a bit of Norwegian history with which I was not very familiar. My hope is always that my book selection will transport me back to life in Norway while also refreshing my Norwegian language skills. This book went above and beyond what I was looking and hoping for.

I loved the book! And  – updated 8/15/17 – I am extremely happy that I can recommend it to English readers now. The novel is now available in English with the title The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, translated by Paul Russell Garrett. Continue reading