The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell

book cover What on earth is happening to the bees? They say it is an ecological disaster, an environmental holocaust. Every day I wonder what the blazes can be causing this abuse of our ecosystem. Chemicals I hear, pesticides. I don’t understand it, really I don’t. Our planet faces extinction and yet nobody seems to care. Am I afraid? You bet your bottom dollar I am.

The environment in which sisters Marnie and Nelly find themselves does indeed look poisoned beyond hope. How can anything survive? This is working class Glasgow and the girls are alone. The book opens with one of the better first paragraphs I have read.

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’s little sister Helen, aka Nelly, has gone and done it. Put the pillow over her father, Gene’s, drugged out face and completed for him the self-destruction he had made his life work. He would abuse her and Marnie no more. Mom, Izzy, made another in a lifetime of awful decisions and headed off to the shack to add her name to the list of those who have gone before. Consider it addition by subtraction. No more need to worry about all potential food money going up noses, into veins or being poured from amber bottles. No more concern about other sorts of abuse, too. But if the authorities find out, the girls will be separated for sure, tossed back into foster care, with who knows what sorts. The solution? A quiet back-yard burial. Who is to take care of these two?

I suppose I’ve always taken care of us really. I was changing nappies at five years old and shopping at seven, cleaning and doing laundry as soon as I knew my way to the launderette and pushing Nelly about in her wee buggy when I was six. They used to call me wee Maw around the towers, that’s how useless Gene and Izzy were. They just never showed up for anything and it was always left to me and left to Nelly when she got old enough. They were never there for us, they were absent, at least now we know where they are.

Author Lisa O’Donnell grew up in public housing to very young parents. In an interview with Powell’s (link at bottom) she talks about the Thatcher-era environment in which she was raised. The primary inspiration for this story came from her days in Scotland, but they were reinforced when she saw similar horrors after she crossed the pond and was living in East LA, children put in charge of children, wastrel parents, childhood denied.

Across the fence lives an old man, Lennie, still mourning the loss of his soul mate of forty years. That boy from whom he sought temporary comfort in the park was not as old as he claimed and now Lennie must endure vandals spray-painting his property and enduring the shame of being on a sex offender list.

Actual parents do not come across very well in O’Donnell’s world. Teacher sorts are a mixed lot and the state agents base their actions on formulae instead of reality. O’Donnell paints a very bleak portrait of working class life in Glasgow. The girls have been damaged by their upbringing. Marnie helps a local drug dealer and relieves her stress with shagging. Nelly insulates herself from the world by speaking in a queenly manner. She plays the violin beautifully but completely freaks out when encountering reminders of her precarious state.

Will the girls be able to keep their ruse going long enough for Marnie to reach 16, when the state will consider her an adult and allow her to legally take care of Nelly?

When the girls’ long-absent grandfather pops into the picture, looking to atone for a lifetime of being a bloody horror, things get even more complicated. He may mean well right now, but born-again or not, this is the guy who had a hand in creating one of those awful parents. His sobriety is not to be presumed, and there is a history of abandonment and violence to boot.

Marnie’s friends add to the pile of woe, coping with their own missing family members, and travails of one sort and another.

There is enough sadness here to fill a cemetery, but there is sweetness to come.

As dark as things appear, a glimmer of light shines through. Lennie is not only no sexual predator, he is just a lonely man with a need to care, and care he does, slowly taking the girls in, offering them the sort of loving home life they had never experienced from their biological parents.

There is plenty of tension in this book. Will Lennie’s dog, Bobby, succeed in his relentless mission, trying to dig up the buried remains? This bit does seem rather clichéd. Can Grandpa be trusted? Will the drug dealer kill them trying to retrieve money owed him by a dead parent?

I know, I know, it sounds pretty dark. And a lot of it certainly is, but there is such warmth in this book, such humanity, such caring, that you will be cheering by the end. Can Lennie’s light shine these girls past the darkness? And there is redemption from another quarter, as Marnie provides the vehicle for a baddie to tuck away his stinger.

These are teenagers and that means coming of age. The sisters in O’Donnell’s tale begin at somewhat extreme ends and move towards each other over the course of the story. Marnie, world weary at fifteen, with the help of people who actually care about her, despite some self-destructive behavior, begins to find her inner softness, her inner vulnerability, her inner child. The decidedly odd Nelly matures, moving from being a very dependent child to someone with much more appreciation for the world and her place in it.

There are multiple, alternating narrators here. Lennie talks to his dead love, Joseph. Marnie and Nelly narrate their sections as well, and speak in distinct and appropriate voices. O’Donnell is a screenwriter, so has a keen ear for dialogue.

There are some rough edges here. Nellly is described early on as a Harry Potter fanatic, but nothing much is made of it after that mention. The girls manage some significant work in places where it is surprising that their labors go undetected. O’Donnell relies too much on coincidence in constructing her climax. Would this or that person really have shown up where and when they do? Nevertheless the beauty here is in how two damaged, abandoned girls can be welcomed, nurtured, and allowed a real home and how a lonely soul can provide it, constructing the family they all desperately need. There is plenty of redemption to go around in this dark place. I was reminded a bit of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, another tale that casts love and hope against an intensely bleak background, the better to draw our attention to the light. The Death of Bees may not be a perfect book but does celebrate the triumph of hope over despair, and it is certain to generate a lot of buzz.

========================================EXTRA STUFF

There are a few interviews I came across that add to one’s appreciation of this book.

USA today from December 2012

NPR from January 5, 2013

Powell’s

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Reviews

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