The Death of Bees

by Lisa O'Donnell

Cover image

Publisher: HarperCollins
Copyright: 2012
Printing: 2013
ISBN: 0-06-220984-1
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 309

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This is the first definite hit from my Powell's Indiespensable subscription, and a good example of why I subscribe. I never would have read or even heard of this book without it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Marnie and Nellie are sisters living in a housing estate in Glasgow's Maryhill district. Neither of their parents ever held regular jobs, although one does quickly learn their father had been earning money distributing drugs. The story opens, rather shockingly, with the death of both parents: their father smothered in his bed, and their mother, a day later, after refusing to notify anyone of their father's death, by hanging herself in the garden shed.

In fear of being taken by social services and then separated, particularly given Nellie's unusual way of interacting with the world (she talks, and writes, like a woman in the 1950s trying to sound high-class), the girls bury both bodies in the back garden and tell everyone their parents just went on an unannounced trip without them. It wouldn't be the first time. Marnie is 15 and a year away from being legally an adult, at which point she can take custody of Nellie (who is 12) and keep them together. In the meantime, they just have to keep their parents' deaths secret and figure out how to keep food on the table and social services away.

Their next-door neighbor is a formerly-closeted older gay man named Lennie who is known as the neighborhood pervert after he was arrested getting a blow job from an underage male prostitute. Both girls are quite understandably suspicious of him, but he's also the first person to notice that something is wrong and to start trying to help. The book is told in many short chapters, each written by one of Marnie, Nellie, or Lennie in their own voice.

You might have guessed from the plot summary that this book needs a few warnings, but I want to emphasize that more. This is a book that opens with decaying corpses, including a few rather-too-vivid images from its transport and from Marnie's later (unnamed) post-traumatic stress. Marnie is quite sexually active, and both girls have had a nasty background full of things that I preferred not to think too much about. Most of the worst bits are only alluded to and are kept off-camera, but there's still quite a lot of background nastiness and desperation here. The Death of Bees is blunt and forthright to the point that it repeatedly made me cringe, and that sort of thing usually doesn't bother me in books.

That said, this is not a horror novel, even though it contains horror. You could describe it as darkly comic, although none of the comedy is the sort that makes one laugh, except perhaps in startled surprise. The adjectives that come to mind are fierce, compassionate, empathetic, tough, and courageous. The author is completely on the side of the three protagonists, all of whom are deeply hurt in their own ways but all of whom are trying as hard as they can to support each other. I have rarely read a book that made me care as much about the characters. It's the kind of story that makes one want to passionately defend them, particularly once the one real villain, in the form of a do-gooding outsider, makes his appearance.

And the reader and the author aren't alone. One of the things I loved about this book is that it doesn't artificially isolate the characters. Marnie has friends, and while Marnie doesn't always notice — for Marnie, this is just her life, and many things of significance to the reader are just more of daily life for her — this book is full of unexpected acts of small kindness. The surrounding characters are themselves all dealing with their own troubles and not in a great position to help anyone, and yet somehow they manage. Even Nellie, who has a great deal of difficulty interacting with other people her own age, gets unexpected help from people she thinks can't stand her. I think it's very telling that about the only character here who is entirely unsympathetic is the one who claims to be the most moral and virtuous.

Unfortunately, from my perspective, this book has one major flaw: the ending. Thankfully, the ending isn't bad; if it were, it would have completely destroyed my enjoyment of the book. By the time one gets through this story, having something bad happen to these girls would break your heart. The ending does deliver the necessary catharsis, but it is far, far too short. O'Donnell builds up tension mercilessly, pushing the story down a path that's clearly desperately wrong for both of the girls, and doesn't let the story climax happen until about ten pages from the end. We get all of a page or two of denouement, and then the novel is over.

I am, admittedly, a "Scouring of the Shire" sort of person. I like long denouements, particularly if I've gone through hell with the characters. I like getting to spend some happy time with them. But even for those who don't enjoy that as much as I do, I think this ending was too short. O'Donnell does an amazing job building sympathy and empathy throughout the story, and I didn't want to have to fill in all of the happily ever after from my own imagination. Maybe it would have been hard to do without getting too sentimental or without dulling some of the sharp edges of the story, but I would have really appreciated another ten pages. As is, it felt like the novel abruptly and unceremoniously dumped me out on the ground.

But, that aside, this is an excellent character story. It's one that I would be careful about recommending; parts of it are extremely dark and nasty, and you have to take Marnie on her own terms for the story to work. But it's beautifully written and thoroughly engaging, and I'm very glad to have read it.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-12-23

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21