Published by Harper
Publication date: January 2nd 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, Young Adult
There are times when what is needed is a story so utterly foreign that it plucks us out of our own world and drops us into one for which our background leaves us completely unprepared. I found this with Lisa O’Donnell’s debut novel The Death of Bees: A Novel. Set in Glasgow, it encompasses the world of Marnie and Nelly, two teens left on their own when their parents die. Well, first they have to bury their dead parents in the backyard because social services will take them away if they have no guardians. Then they have to keep the neighbor’s dog from digging them up. Finally, they have to proceed as usual until the following year when Marnie turns sixteen and will be considered an adult and can legally care for them both.
“As usual” is the difficult part. The only usual to their life was the lack of any normalcy. Heat, clean water, and food were all magical items that would disappear at a moment’s notice. Mother might have the money for cigarettes and booze but none for milk and bread. There are also people, namely her father’s drug dealer, who want to know where he went and when he’ll be back. Marnie’s sharp mind can create lies as quickly as the truth but Nelly is another story. She is a prodigy at the violin but has no understanding of social norms and when she emerges from her inner world, speaks in the tones and vocabulary of the Queen Mother. When a kindly neighbor takes an interest in her, Marnie’s fear that Nelly will fall prey to an older gentleman who plays the piano and bakes marvelous food is added to her worries. Thankfully, Lennie, is one of the few good things to happen to the two and despite his inquiries into their parents’ whereabouts he shelters the girls, giving them safety and security for the first time in their lives.
The Death of Bees is like a lot of contemporary fiction in that it uses no filter when looking at society today. Marnie is living the life of a lost woman but without age as a buffer. Many of her actions are frighteningly adult but then there is the girl who has best friends, wants to wear trendy clothes, and falls in love with a boy. It’s trying to balance all this with the chaos of her dead parents’ lives—people looking for her father who, apparently nicked some money from a drug dealer and the arrival of her mother’s long-lost, abusive father who suddenly shows up wanting to be kindly grandpa—means that relaxing is not something Marnie has time for. Instead she is wound so tightly it seems she’ll fly off the page and out of the room in a burst of loud music and cheap perfume.
O’Donnell manages to create a darkly humorous world without downplaying the intensity of the situation. This is not a fantasy novel; it’s probably more real than most of us want to know but by sharing the inner lives of some of these broken people, O’Donnell gives us the other side of the story and brings wit and warmth to harsh circumstances. They stumble and stagger through life and in trying to do the right thing make for fantastic reading.