Review

The Death of Bees

by Lisa O'Donnell

In THE DEATH OF BEES, which is told in diary-like vignettes by straight-A student Marnie, her violin prodigy sister Nelly, and elderly neighbor Lennie, morbid humor borders on darkness of a total eclipse. Marnie conveys, “Today is Christmas Eve. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.”

The dead unwed parents are scurrilous drug dealer/user Gene and ditzy Izzy, a product of abuse and neglect who perpetuates the cycle on her teen daughters. Both are losers extraordinaire, and on the government dole, in Glasgow, Scotland. There’s ambiguity as to who smothered Gene with Nelly’s “pillow by his head and good golly Marnie had pushed it over his face.” Or did she? Was Gene in Nelly’s bed? And why did Izzy hang herself in the garden shed with a suspiciously soiled sheet? After all, Marnie mulls, “I should have stopped Gene when I had the chance. It never occurred to me he’d go after Nelly, we’re so different.”

"Those who experienced neglect or abuse may find screenwriter Lisa O’Donnell’s brilliant debut novel painful. Or perhaps learn from it how to bury the ghosts that have haunted them."

Predictably, the girls’ lies catch up with them, and they fear placement in foster care by the “social.” They tell their “perv” neighbor that Gene and Izzy are in Turkey, but Lennie conjectures that the sisters are abandoned and takes them in, providing the only love they’ve ever known. Do the girls need him, or does he, in life’s ebb, need them?

Much is told in Marnie’s ribald vernacular (snog means kiss, tickety-boo is going well), countered by pubescent Nelly’s aloof affectations from Bette Davis films. A “foible of Nelly’s is how she talks. She sounds like the queen of England most of the time.” And Lennie, an old chap who conceals a horrid deed from a criminal misstep, learns of what happened to Gene and Izzy and can be trusted to keep the siblings’ secret…uh, buried.

Thickening the mix are Lennie’s grave-digging dog, Bobby, and Izzy’s abusive father, Robert T. Macdonald, who abandoned her, but has now found Jesus and seeks salvation through his granddaughters. Nelly, however, observes that Robert is “a raving lunatic with a penchant for whiskey (and no glass according to Marnie). He waited until she wasn’t looking and slapped me.”

Things seem dire when Mick and Vlado, Gene’s mafia-like drug suppliers, come with guns looking for a sack of money Gene stashed just before he went to meet his maker in a climate much warmer than Glasgow’s glum drear. Marnie and Nelly mature at warp speed, as tables turn like a tornado. For them justice is served sans legal process, and perhaps deserved normalcy awaits them at Lennie’s loch-side cottage far from urban slums and deleterious government protectors.

Those who experienced neglect or abuse may find screenwriter Lisa O’Donnell’s brilliant debut novel painful. Or perhaps learn from it how to bury the ghosts that have haunted them.

Reviewed by L. Dean Murphy on January 10, 2013

The Death of Bees
by Lisa O'Donnell

  • Publication Date: January 2, 2013
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0062209841
  • ISBN-13: 9780062209849