“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.”
What a powerful beginning to a story of family dysfunction at its absolute freakiest.
“The Death of Bees,” by Lisa O’Donnell, is part horror story, part coming-of-age tale, and a frankly mesmerizing novel.
Fifteen-year-old Marnie Doyle and her 12-year-old sister Nelly live in what is the equivalent of a housing project in Glasgow, Scotland. After the suspiciously untimely death of their parents (he by suffocation, she by hanging herself), Marnie is determined to keep herself and her sister together.
Marnie has to lie about their whereabouts, at least until she turns 16 and is considered an adult. If anyone asks the girls, they say that their parents have gone to Turkey for a bit. It's not that much of a stretch of the truth — the girls have been left to fend for themselves most of their lives as dad Gene and mom Izzy drank, smoked and doped their lives away.
But someone does take notice. Lennie, the lonely old man next door, wonders what is going on as he observes the girls digging and fussing about in the backyard. He begins to help the girls, feeding them and providing a clean, safe place for them to stay.
Then the inevitable questions start coming from all sides when teachers and friends want to know where Gene and Izzy are. So Marnie decides to take a chance and lets Lennie in on what happened, and he vows to help and protect the girls as best he can.
O’Donnell has created a chilling and complicated story with her debut novel, “The Death of Bees.” Telling this story in alternating chapters through the voice of the three main characters, O’Donnell keeps the plot moving along to its unusual ending.
The characters presented in this story are quirky, sometimes humorous, and very down to earth and realistic. Marnie comes across as a tough gal, but she still needs the attention only a parent can give. Nelly is a seriously troubled child, very talented on the violin, but she freaks most people out by often speaking as though she's upper English nobility. She finds a kindred spirit in the grandfatherly neighbor Lennie, but he too is a bit damaged by his own skewed experience in the world.
These three odd people find a family of their own making with each other, and it’s this relationship that truly makes “The Death of Bees” a memorable reading experience. Just a warning though — there is lots of raw language and adult situations presented in the flow of this story, so it’s a book that would be considered for a mature reading audience.