The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell
A riveting, brilliantly written debut novel-a coming-of-age story with the strong voice and powerful resonance of Swamplandia! and The Secret Life of Bees—in which two young sisters attempt to hold the world at bay after the mysterious death of their parents.
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.
My thoughts: I honestly don't know what to do with this book. It is morbidly weird and disturbing. The characters have so many flaws I am certain I can't find a redeeming quality and yet I find that the neediness of each of them is their endearing quality. Besides that, I simply don't know what to think.
Basic breakdown of the story is that Marnie, age 15 and Nelly, age 12 find themselves orphaned one day. Their father, whom they despised and it is strongly hinted that he liked his girls in an unnatural way, is dead in his bed. Each girl assumes the other did it. Their mother, Izzy, is broken and walks out to the shed and promptly hangs herself. This is revealed in the first five or six pages so I don't think I'm offering any spoilers here. But then it gets weirder. Rather than report their deaths and be put into social services custody, the simply hide the evidence in the garden. Of course, the detail to the decomposing bodies is beyond strange. I won't go there.
The goal is that they stay together. Marnie turns 16 in one year. She believes she can be entrusted with her odd sister, Nelly, who is carrying a boatload of baggage on her back but soothes herself with her little tantrums and her prodigy like playing of her violin. Marnie's issues are much more ingrained. She has self loathing and her behavior is stated very matter of fact. So much so that I nearly dropped the book on multiple occasions.
Meet Lennie, the convicted sex offender of elderly nature who is still mourning the death of his lover and lonely. He knows the girls have a gaping hole in their lives but it is not the sudden absence of their parents but the perpetual and historical absence of their self centered parents who had no business having children in the first place. And so begins an unlikely friendship.
And so it goes with the introduction of a few characters and the lies to mislead the drug dealers their parents owed money to but will not go away. A sudden appearance of a relative trying to make amends but simply doesn't have the personality for parenting. Jealous drug dealing spouses, sex here and there and a few other shocking acts. Meanwhile, Nelly remains perpetually and purposefully innocent. And yet. Able to think quickly when the dog suddenly digs up a limb from one of their shallow graves.
Throughout the book, more information is revealed regarding the parents and their own secrets, insecurities, and failings, along with the implicit understanding that one or two flawed friends have been constants and unfailing. When there are children at risk, those with an altruistic soul come through.
I don't know who I would recommend this book to. It has its good points. On the other hand, I am quite disappointed in myself for persevering through to the end. I want those thoughts out of my mind. I can see a foot under the table. Although that set the stage for a rather humorous exchange between two of the characters.
It is bizarre.
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*I received a free copy of this book from publishing company in exchange for an honest review. The opinions expressed here are my own.