The Death of Bees Possibly the Novel of the Year

The Death of Bees (2013)
Lisa O’Donnell
Harper ISBN 978-006220847
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Are you a fan of great opening lines? How about this one? “Today is Christmas Eve.
Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.” Those words come from Marnie Doyle, one of the three protagonists of Lisa O’Donnell’s stunning, moving, debut novel. As the words suggest, Marnie’s the female equivalent of a manchild (womangirl?)–grown up enough to be screwed up in a lot of ways (sex, drugs, cynicism) but also that volatile mix of adolescent maturity and pre-teen vulnerability. She’s also the closest thing her 12-year-old sister, Nelly, has to a real mother and the only thing standing between state custody for both of them.

The novel is set in a grim Glasgow housing estate–the sort populated by working-class folks damaged by poverty, substance abuse, and hopelessness built up by a lifetime of being kicked down. Marnie is right; her parents, Gene and Izzy (Isabel), were not beloved. In fact, they were viewed as so irresponsible that few of the girls’ neighbors bother to question Marnie’s assertion that they are simply on a prolonged holiday with an open-ended return date. (Gene and Izzy had left their kids plenty of times before.) Marnie’s goal is simple: to make it till 16, when she can be declared Nelly’s legal guardian and the secret of how Gene and Izzy died can be revealed. It won’t be easy. Nelly is a language savant and violin prodigy who does brilliantly in school, but she’s also a high-functioning autistic prone to living in a fantasy world. Plus, she’s as tired of being good all the time as her sister is of being the bad girl. Marnie is savvy enough to do decently in school as well, achievement that surprises everyone but she, as it provides cover for some of her less-mature decisions. But, seriously, how can she hope to support herself and Nelly? Even if both girls were playing with a full deck, how could they feed, clothe, and house themselves?

That’s a question that occurs to their neighbor, Lennie, a cultured gay man who unfairly carries around the label of being a sex offender. He doesn’t know where Gene and Izzy are either, but he knows kids in trouble when he sees them. Lennie takes to inviting the girls for meals, walks, and chat. Thus begins one of the oddest friendships in literature, and thus unfolds a story that is, in turn, grisly and touching, cruel and kind, tender and cold-hearted. O’Donnell tells it by alternating chapters from the points-of-view of Marnie, Nelly, and Lennie.

I won’t pretend that The Death of Bees goes down easy, but it is a book you will tear through as it’s tearing you apart. One reviewer aptly compared O’Donnell’s book to the Jennifer Lawrence film Winter’s Bone. (It was my favorite film of 2011.) Like Winter’s Bone, you want to scream at the injustices facing the girls and their would-be savior, but you’ll also marvel over the inner strength upon which damaged people draw just to get from Monday to Tuesday. This book will make you weep, laugh, and quake with rage. And you will hard pressed to read anything that’s half as good. --Rob Weir

Postscript: Yes, the odd title relates to the book. Find out how!

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