Death of Bees (O'Donnell)

The Death of Bees
Lisa O'Donnell, 2013
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780062209849

Winner, 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize

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. (From the publisher.)

Read the Interview with Lisa O'Donnell

Author Bio
Raised—Bute, Island of the Firth of Clyde, Scotland
Education—B.A.,Glasgow Caledonian University
Awards—Orange Prize (screenwriting); Commonwealth Book Prize
Currently—lives in Los Angeles, California, USA

Lisa O’Donnell winner of The Orange Prize for New Screenwriters with her screenplay The Wedding Gift in 2000. Lisa was also nominated for the Dennis Potter New Writers Award in the same year.

Her first novel, The Death of Bees, published in 2012, won the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize. Her second novel, Closed Doors, was released in 2014. Lisa had moved to Los Angeles, California, as a screenwriter but has since returned to live in Scotland. (Adapted from the author's website.)

Book Reviews
The Death of Bees is compelling stuff, engaging the emotions from the first page and quickly becoming almost impossible to put down.
Herald (Scotland)

As the action reaches a feverish climax…dark comedy is replaced by nerve-shredding tension…the reader is thoroughly caught up in the emotional trials and tribulations of two unlikely heroines….Warm without being cozy, explicit without being shocking, and emotive without being schmaltzy…a powerful coming-of-age tale.

This vibrantly-imagined novel, by turns hilarious and appalling, is hard to resist.
Daily Mail (UK)

O’Donnell adeptly balances caustic humour and compassion.
Guardian (UK)

The Death of Bees steadily draws you into its characters’ emotional lives.
Financial Times (UK)

When 15-year-old Marnie Doyle finds her father’s body on the sofa of their seedy Glasgow home and her mother hanging in the garden shed, she and her younger sister, Nelly, decide to bury them both in the back garden.... The sisters and [neighbor] Lennie narrate alternating chapters, moving the story along at a fast clip, but the author’s decision to give precocious Nelly a prissy vocabulary and a stilted, poetic delivery (“A white syringe. The coarsest cotton. It’s abominable”) makes her a less believable character, especially as Marnie’s voice is rife with expletives and vulgar slang. The difference between the sisters in terms of personality and maturity puts them at odds despite their shared fear of discovery. But their resilience suggests hope for their blighted lives.
Publishers Weekly

Quirky characters with distinct voices enliven this sometimes grim and often funny coming-of-age story in the vein of Karen Russell's best seller Swamplandia! 'Donnell's debut is sure to be a winner with adults and young adults alike. —Nancy H. Fontaine, Norwich P.L., VT
Library Journal

(Starred review.) O’Donnell’s finely drawn characters display the full palette of human flaws and potential. Told in the alternating voices of Marnie, Nelly, and Lennie, this beautifully written page-turner will have readers fretting about what will become of the girls.

From its first line to its last, The Death of Bees is unapologetically candid and heralds a brazen new voice in the literary world…. This is a dark and mordant novel, yet despite its fighting words, a tender heart beats deep at its center. Although undeniably bleak at times, Marnie and Nelly’s story is not devoid of hope and has much needed punches of humor throughout. The result is a riveting and rewarding read.

An unusual coming-of-age novel that features two sisters who survive years of abuse and neglect. The story is set in Scotland, written with a distinct Scottish flavor, in very brief chapters told from the alternating points of view of the two girls and a neighbor who takes them in and ultimately covers for them when their dark secret is uncovered.... The two girls also go through the more mundane trials of female adolescence—peer pressures at school, menstruation and the confusions that accompany awakening sexuality. The author's experience as a screenwriter is most definitely apparent, as the reader always hears the voices and can visualize the dramatic, sometimes appallingly grim scenes.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. What was your initial reaction reading these few paragraphs? What did it tell you about the person who wrote it? How does the prologue set the tone for the story that follows?

2. Talk about the title. What does "The Death of Bees" signify?

3. What were your first impressions of Marnie and Nelly? Would you call them typical fifteen- and twelve-year-old adolescents? Compare them with other children, both those you may know as well as the girls' classmates and friends. Did your impressions of the sisters change over the course of the novel?

4. Contrast Marnie and Nelly. How do they see themselves, each other, and the world around them? What accounts for the things they see differently? How would each fare without the other? Marnie explains that Nelly is "just not like other people and can't fake it, which is more than can be said about me. I've been faking it my whole life." Why does she believe this about herself? How is Marnie faking it?

5. How do their parents' deaths affect the girls? Is Marnie right to keep their deaths a secret? Why does she do this? Are her instincts about adults and the system correct?

6. Think about their parents, Gene and Izzy. What kind of parents—and people—were they? Do you think they loved their daughters? If so, why did they behave as they did? What did the girls learn about life from them? How much was Izzy's background influential in who she was as an adult? Why are Marnie and Nelly so different from their parents?

7. If it were possible, do you think we should have laws determining who can have children and who cannot? Why do some people have children when they cannot or do not want to take care of them? How might the girls be different if they had been born to different parents?

8. What role does class play in the story? Several of Marnie's friends come from more privileged backgrounds. What are they and their parents like? How does class often blind us to reality?

9. Describe Lennie and his role in the girls' lives. How has his past shaped his life? What draws him to Marnie and Nelly? Why does he notice them and why does he care? What about the girls' other neighbors—why don't they care? Is Lennie a good paternal figure, and if so, why? What does he give the girls that Izzy and Gene did not? What do the girls think about Lennie? Why do they trust him? Why does the fact that he cares for them scare Marnie?

10. What role does Vlad play in Marnie's life? Describe their relationship. What do they offer each other? What do you think of Vlad? Is he a good person? We hear about Vlad before we meet him. How does what we first learn about him color our impressions?

11. What happens when Robert T. Macdonald appears? What is his relationship to the girls? What does he want from them? Why are both Marnie and Lennie suspicious of Robert? Has he really changed, as he professes?

12. The novel is told from the viewpoints of three characters: Marnie, Nelly, and Lennie. Why do you think the author chose this form of narration? How does it add to the unfolding story? How might it be different if it had been told from one of the three viewpoints?

13. Would you say the book had a happy ending? What do you think will happen to the girls in the future? What about Robert and Vlad?

14. What drew you to read (or suggest) The Death of Bees? Did it meet your expectations? Were the characters and the situation believable? Did you have a favorite character, and if so, why?

15. What did you take away from reading The Death of Bees?
(Questions issued by publisher.

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