The Death of Bees

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Written by Diana Kenny
20 November 2014

Diana reviews a riveting, brilliantly written novel, in which two young sisters attempt to hold the world at bay after the mysterious death of their parents

The Death of Bees
by Lisa O’Donnell

I missed out on a couple of book club books while I was off gallivanting around Ireland, though I see the book reviews were very competently covered, and I arrived home half way though the cycle.  I was told the new book was a good quick read and given a friend’s copy.

My first impression was do I really want to read this? However, I persisted and towards the end I could not put the book down.  So a book that is off-putting in the first couple of chapters presents a challenge, but the author pulls you in to the dark world of her characters with some comic moments and you are hooked.

The novel is set in Glasgow and narrated chapter by chapter through three characters - Marnie 15, Nelly 12 and their elderly next- door neighbour Lennie. The sisters are the daughters of drug-addicted parents and when Marnie discovers her father’s body on the sofa of their seedy home (seemingly suffocated) and their mother hanging in the garden shed she does not call the authorities. After about a week she and her sister bury their father in the back garden and stash their mother in the coal bunker. 

The problems arising from this decision are multiple.  The smell of their father’s decomposing body lingers in the house, the dog next door is continually drawn to the new flower bed and to digging it up and the drug dealer with whom their father had been working (and with whom Marnie has been sleeping) wants to know where their parents and his money is.  In the background of each sister’s mind is the thought that the other had killed their father because of sexual impropriety.

Marnie is tough, very intelligent and intent on keeping her and Nelly together until she is 16 and able to care legally for her.  Nelly, a talented violinist, appears to be slightly autistic, her speech is very stilted and correct, the vocabulay not what one would expect of her. Lennie, their homosexual next-door neighbour, is mourning the loss of his long-term partner when the girls make an entry into his life.  He feeds them and teaches Nelly to cook; together they make a semblance of family life which fulfils their individual needs.

Things appear to be going reasonably well until their grandfather, their mother’s father, appears on the scene and wants to reconnect with his daughter.  A nasty piece of work who had abandoned his daughter once before, he will not take no for an answer.  All of this Marnie in particular has trouble dealing with. At the beginning of the book she considers herself an adult; by the end she is yearning to be a child and at the same time Nelly is taking on more responsibility and making mature decisions.

So you see not a book for the tender-hearted, yet O’Donnell considers it a book for young adults:

“There are a lot of kids out there raising themselves. It's not a nice reality, but it is a reality. In movies we see welfare officers sweeping in and protecting children from abusive parents, in real life it doesn't happen that way. Drug addicts and abusers still have children and while there are visibly neglectful parents, there are also those abusive parents who are invisible to authorities and their children are out there fending for themselves. It's frightening if you dare to think about it but if you're paying attention to the world you live in you'll see that it's all around you. I wrote The Death of Bees for all those children forced into adulthood before their time, children denied childhoods and forced to take care of themselves, but I empowered my characters by creating a dark fairy tale.”

The Death of Bees is a thought-provoking story. Initially I did not want to enter its disturbing scenario, but there are children all over the world who are living it every day and there seems to be nothing I can do about it except to acknowledge their suffering.





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