Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Review: The Death of Bees

Summary: 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 Maryhill housing estate isn't grand, the girls do have each other. Besides, it's only a 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? Lennie takes them in—feeds them, clothes them, protects them—and something like a family forms. But soon enough, the sisters' friends, their teachers, and the authorities start asking tougher 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 one another. -- Harper

Wow! I hardly know where to begin with this review for THE DEATH OF BEES by Lisa O'Donnell. The book has been described as dark, yet comedic, and it's also been described as part-mystery/part coming-of-age story. All of that is true and still doesn't seem to quite capture the essence of this story. THE DEATH OF BEES is a highly original story that made me laugh, shudder and cry; and I have to say that I can't think of any book that I've read that compares to this one.

THE DEATH OF BEES tells the story of sisters Marnie and Nelly and their next-door neighbor Lenny. The book begins with Marnie and Nelly burying their parents in the back yard, hoping to keep their deaths a secret for one year... until Marnie is legally an adult. According to Marnie and Nelly, the parents weren't exactly ideal and the girls seemed to been basically left to their own devices even when the parents were around. The reader isn't quite sure about the details surrounding their parents' deaths; however, all is eventually revealed. So I guess this book is technically a mystery, although I didn't really consider it that way when I was reading it. I definitely felt it was more a coming-of-age story.

The girls are doing their best to keep things a secret, but the are both in need of some parental guidance. This is where Lenny, the gay neighbor, steps in. Lenny is a convicted pedophile (he propositioned a teenage boy without realizing how young he was), yet he immediately suspects something isn't quite right next door. He begins taking care of the girls, and the three find comfort in their new family relationship. However, people (and some not very nice ones) begin asking Marnie and Nelly questions about their parents' whereabouts and things aren't adding up. Secrets begin spilling out and Marnie, Nelly, and Lenny are at risk of losing everything.

I've mentioned that this book is extremely original and I think you can see from the description that it's rather unique. However, there are quite a few things that made this book stand out to me. First of all, I loved how the story was written. Ms. O'Donnell chose to tell this story in Marnie, Nelly, and Lenny's voices with chapters alternating between the characters. I loved how she captured their individual voices and because she wrote in the first person, I was able to get an understanding of these three characters that I wouldn't have in any other way.

What surprised me was how much I liked and sympathized with Marnie, Nelly, and Lenny despite some pretty serious baggage. I think this is a credit to Ms. O'Donnell's ability to make their voices so genuine. Heck, Lenny was technically a predator, but I absolutely loved him for the way he cared about these girls. And Nelly was in her own little world, possibly autistic, while Marnie was brilliant, albeit a bit rough around the edges. Each of these characters were so well developed and truly memorable in my opinion, and I absolutely loved their interactions with each other.

Another really special thing about this story was how the author brought the setting to life. The story takes place in Glasgow in the projects, and I thought she did a great job of making this housing development real. But she also did a fabulous job of showing the bleak life that these two girls had. Their parents were absent, even when present if you get my drift, and there was definitely some substance abuse going on. Ms. O'Donnell managed to convey the pitiful existence and the girls' lack of options, while at the same time showing a glimmer of hope for them.

And finally, one of the strangest things about THE DEATH OF BEES was how funny it was. At times, all of the characters and the situations they found themselves in were borderline silly. For example, I thought it was hilarious that Lenny's dog kept sniffing around where the parents were buried and eventually started digging! And Marnie was a riot with her tough exterior and how she managed to lie to everyone about her family's situation. Initially, I wasn't sure that I should be laughing when there was so much sadness in the story; however, I found that I couldn't help it. The book had a wonderful darkness and, at the same time, wittiness to it.

THE DEATH OF BEES would make a great book club pick. The book actually delves into some pretty serious issues that warrant some further discussion. There is a reading guide available that will stimulate your discussion. Some of the themes you might want to explore include family dynamics, responsibility, secrets, sacrifice, honestly, love and protection.

If you are looking for a very original and highly entertaining, then I suggest picking up a copy of THE DEATH OF BEES. 

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

I've heard very good things about this book but haven't read a plot summary until now. Reminds me a little of maybe a dark version of Irises by Francisco Stork.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Fizzy Jill said the reader would most likely read the whole thing with raised eyebrows. That works for me. I've yet to read a bad thing. So far my library does not have it on audio, but I'm hoping they will get it.

bermudaonion said...

Wow, it sounds like that book starts with a bang! I can't wait to read it!

Beth Hoffman said...

I had added this book on my list last week and am so glad you enjoyed it. Terrific review, Julie!

Serena said...

Sounds like a good book and maybe I should add it to the wish list.

The Readingista said...

What an interesting mixture of elements. I am beyond curious and am adding it to my TBR. Thanks for your informative review.

Literary Feline said...

I really liked this book too and really came to care about the characters. I enjoyed revisiting the book through your review!

Beth F said...

I have this on the top of my list -- I must get to it. Everyone is raving.