This book came to me last year as the first Powell’s Books Indiespensible selection of 2013. It was the first time in my brief history of belonging to the Indiespensible subscription club that I saw a book in a bookstore before it showed up on my doorstep. Usually the books are a bit off the beaten path and not well-publicized, and they don’t show up at Barnes and Noble of all places. This one has been pretty prominently displayed there throughout the year, and I know I’ve seen it since it’s come out in paperback, too. The cover is really pretty. Maybe that’s why?
This is the story of two sisters, Marnie and Nelly, and their neighbor, Lennie. Marnie and Nelly don’t have the best home life: their parents are basically the reason why Child Protective Services exists. Marnie and Nelly’s father Eugene dies under mysterious circumstances, and their mother Izzy then goes ahead and hangs herself in the shed out back. On Christmas. So the girls do what any sensible girls with parents like Eugene and Izzy would do: they bury the bodies in the yard and go about their business. Lennie somehow gets involved with them: he’s lonely and used to caring for someone, and the girls obviously need caring for. The novel is told in alternating points of view: Marnie, Nelly, and Lennie, and in no particular order. Lennie’s partner of many years has recently passed away, leaving a void in his life, that can’t be filled by his little dog. In fact, most of Lennie’s chapters are in the form of letters/monologues directed towards his deceased partner. So Lennie, Nelly, and Marnie form a family of sorts, and are sort of happy for a time, even though Marnie can’t get the smell of her father’s decaying body out of her nose, and Nelly is often lost in her own little world. Here is something that it didn’t occur to be me to be annoyed about/think of as a narrative device until right this second. Nelly talks in a very old fashioned way, described here very well by Marnie: “Another foible of Nelly’s is how she talks. She sounds like the queen of England most of the time. She doesn’t say mum, she says mother, and she doesn’t say dad, she says father. She has sentences in her head like ‘What the devil’s going on?’ and ‘What on earth’s all this hullabaloo?’ I’ve also heard her say ‘confounded’ and ‘good golly.’ Drives me nuts. Constantly having to protect her from head cases who think she’s taking the piss (7).” Obviously Marnie speaks in a much more contemporary teenage sort of way (if one lives in Scotland). So this annoys me now because I feel like the author may have chosen this way for Nelly to speak as a way to discern her narrative voice from Marnie’s, not as a character trait of Nelly’s. Or maybe it’s kind of the same thing. I don’t know. I do know that initially I found it endearing and didn’t think to be annoyed by it until later on.
Izzy’s father Robert T. MacDonald turns up eventually, and this is when things become more complicated for our girls and Lennie. The nice thing is that in meeting Mr. MacDonald we get a glimpse into the world Izzy came from and it helps to explain why Izzy turns out how she does. The girls go to stay with their grandfather for a time and this doesn’t end up working out well. I won’t go into more of the plot because I do think that you guys should read this book, and I don’t want to ruin it for you. Suffice it to say that eventually Marnie and Nelly find a place to call home.
I enjoy multiple narrator novels when they are done well. This one is done well. The plot moves steadily forward, and the author doesn’t spend a lot of time retelling events from everyone’s point of view (which is actually something I enjoy about multi-narrator novels, but it would have been distracting here—don’t ask me why, I just have that feeling). Lennie, Nelly, and Marnie have distinct voices, and are all sympathetic and fairly well-rounded characters. They are not perfect, and at times are a bit weird (especially Nelly), but I liked all three of them, and wanted things to work out for them. The prose is a bit stripped down and stark, and is intermittently in the present tense. These two trappings of contemporary fiction do sometimes annoy me, but they worked for this book. The world we inhabit in The Death of Bees is very stark and dark and at times pretty freaking hopeless, and the style of prose helps to create the mood.
This book is also funny. Darkly funny, but funny all the same. Like the girls roll their father Gene down the stairs to get him out of the house and he sort of explodes at the bottom because he’s been dead for a week. And Lennie’s dog Bobby spends a lot of time trying to dig up Izzy and Gene’s bodies in the garden. And Marnie in general is hilarious; of course it’s a defense mechanism, but I thought she was funny regardless of the reason for it. This is an excerpt from a Marnie chapter when she meets her boyfriend Kirkland’s parents. I think it’s hilarious. “Dessert is served with coffee, except it’s not coffee, it’s espresso and like their daft tea it’s served in egg cups. I decide to get Kirkland a huge fuck-off mug for Christmas to dwarf all these tiny wee dishes his mum’s got. Fiona gives me a huge slice of cake, but remains unable to mask her discomfort, basically she wants me to fuck off and never come back and is totally shiting it in case I drag her son off to Sighthill and start injecting him with heroin (107).” I just love her. She is sarcastic and smart and strong, among other things. I would read Marnie’s voice all day long.
I know that I had more thoughts about this book while I was reading it than what I’ve shared here. Please don’t think my brevity is a condemnation of the quality of the book. This is Lisa O’Donnell’s first novel, and I am looking forward to what she writes next. The Death of Bees is my favorite book I’ve gotten since joining Powell’s Books Indiespensible book club two years ago—of course, I’m about a year behind on reading the selections, but it’s my favorite one that I’ve read. I wish I knew what made the author decide to name the book what she did. Nelly mentions early on that the bee population of the world is getting smaller, and muses on what could be causing this—pollution, most likely, but here, I’ll let you read how Nelly herself puts it. “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 could 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 (53).” I just spent some time googling to find out what the name has to do with the book, or what others thought. The author is fairly mum on the subject (I suspect interviewers thought it was too pedestrian of a question), but if I had to make a guess, the metaphor at work here must be a straightforward one—kids are bees, or childhood is bees, and the death at hand in this book is the death of Marnie and Nelly’s childhood. Or maybe the death of bees is just a symptom of the decay of our world, as is the life of Marnie and Nelly.
I’m pretty sure that Child Protective Services exists because of the Conroys.
Based on your review, this sounds like exactly the kind of woman book that I don’t like: the really, really bleak kind, right up there with Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Joyce Carol Oates’ them and The Gravedigger’s Daughter. Other woman books are OK.
I think that I may have focused more on the bleakness than I needed to, because I was so excited to have figured out how the author used sparse language to convey a bleak world. It isn’t all bleak and miserable. The relationship Lennie the neighbor has with the girls is quite warm and sweet (not cloyingly so). It may be too much of a woman book for you, but there’s more facets to it than the one or two I explored in my review. Because I needed to finish it before the day was out!