Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell (4/5)

First published: 2012
Page count: 309


The back says: 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.

Marnie and her little sister Nelly are on their own now. Only they know what happened to their parents, Izzy and Gene, and they aren’t telling. While life in Glasgow’s Hazlehurst housing estate isn’t grand, they do have each other. Besides, it’s only one year until Marnie will be considered an adult and can legally take care of them both.

As the new year comes and goes, Lennie, the old man next door, realizes that his young neighbors are alone and need his help. Or does he need theirs? But he’s not the only one who suspects something isn’t right. Soon, the sisters’ friends, their other neighbors, the authorities, and even Gene’s nosy drug dealer begin to ask questions. As one lie leads to another, dark secrets about the girls’ family surface, creating complications that threaten to tear them apart.


Written with fierce sympathy and beautiful precision, told in alternating voices, The Death of Bees is an enchanting, grimly comic tale of three lost souls who, unable to answer for themselves, can answer only for each other.

I say: I bought this solely due to the five first sentences above, desperately wanting to know what would lead Marnie and Nelly to bury their parents in the back yard. Well, it actually says in the synopsis why they buried them – so they wouldn’t be taken into foster care - so rather, I wanted to know what happened to them. But then, as I kept on reading, I kind of didn’t want to know anymore.

It was an emotional read.

First we have Marnie who does well in school, has a lot of friends, works part-time for and sleeping with the married owner of an ice cream van that sells drugs on the side, and extremely protective of her younger sister. Then we have Nelly who hilariously speaks in archaic British English, is a genius at the violin, obsessed with Harry Potter, but also a little bit “out there.” And then lastly we have Lennie, the neighbour that everyone hates and who normally keeps to himself, but starts taking care of the girls when he realises that their parents are missing.

The reason it takes a while for people to start questioning is because both parents are on the dole drug addicts who are prone to leave the kids for days on end. And that’s the centre of the sadness, how easily – emotionally - they bury them in the yard and keep on living; they’re used to taking care of themselves. They’re so different, Marnie and Nelly, but I love the way each considers herself as the strong one that has to take care of her sister.

And I love, love, love everything about Lennie.

The best part about the book is the way the narratives weave seamlessly into each other and you hardly even question the plot. The three main characters are so real, and so vulnerable, witnessing the way their lives entwine is almost like poetry; a silent hope for everyone involved. But it's not all doom and gloom; there's a lot of humour sprinkled all over to keep you going.

I read this in one sitting as I became increasingly desperate to see how it would all turn out.

There are two plot twists that I really didn’t care for, hence the 4/5 rating, but I can’t go into them without revealing spoilers. They just seemed contrived and jarred the beauty of the prose, forcing the characters to dance around the improbability of it all.

Either way, this was a near magical piece of work, and I wouldn’t mind reading it again sometime.

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