Death of Bees (Review)

Labels: A Lighter Touch

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The Death of Bees*
Lisa O'Donnell, 2012
320 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
January, 2013

Celebtated in Britain and now garnering stunning reviews in the U.S., The Death of Bees is a short read that packs a big wallop. But while the story is powerful and characters lovable, do take note: it might be a bit much for some. Grim...or grimly comic...or comically grim, The Death of Bees is not for everyone.

The novel, situtated in Glasgow, Scotland, is told through alternating voices: two sisters and their neighbor, Lennie. The girls, 12 and 15, are on their own, their parents "missing." Yet readers know from the get-go exactly where they are. And so do the girls.

As the book opens, the sisters are burying both mother and father unceremoniously in the backyard. But don't expect a tragedy—as aptly put in the Prologue, neither parent was "beloved." Still, their "disappearance" becomes a tightly guarded secret; the girls fear being packed off to a foster home, an experience they've had before with disastrous results.

Lennie, the third narrator, is the girls' elderly neighbor, who has been watching the two and wondering where their parents have taken off to...this time. Out of sympathy he offers them a meal on New Years' Eve...and then another on New Year's Day. Soon he's feeding them, caring for them, worrying about them—and the three form a family, the first real family the girls have ever known.

The charm of this book, it's power, lies in the voices of the three characters. At fifteen, Marnie wears a hardened and street-wise shell. But we see through her pretense to discover a vulnerable, sometimes naive young girl, a loyal friend, and a caring sister to Nelly.

Younger Nelly is easily one of the most adorable characters to come along in fiction. "Truth is," Marnie tells us, "Nelly's a wee bit touched." She's a savant—a prodigy on the violin, but a child who douses her cereal in coke and wets her pants when frightened. She speaks with a 19th-century quaintness: "what on earth's all this hullabaloo?" or "Good God, Mother, you scared the dickens out of me."

Finally, there is Lennie next door. Lennie has his own dark past, but he is kind, lonely and worried about the girls—they fulfill a deep-seated need in him to nurture and love.

Other characters enter the story, many who are not what they seem—some better, some far worse. The Death of Bees reveals the sad underbelly of British life: drug use, dysfunctional parents, thuggery, and poverty. But it also shows us the courage of two young girls who learn whom to love and trust...and how to create a surprising family.

See our Reading Guide for The Death of Bees.
*Winner, 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize


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