The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell
Hardcover, 311 pages
"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.
As the New Year comes and goes, Lennie, the old man next door, realizes that his young neighbors are alone and need his help. Lennie takes them in—feeds them, clothes them, protects them—and something like a family forms. But soon, 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.
Marnie, 15, and Nelly, 12, are sisters who have just buried their parents, Gene and Izzy, in the backyard in The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell. When their father is discovered dead by their mother, who then hangs herself in the shed, the girls decide to bury them both in the backyard so Marnie and Nelly can stay together and won't be sent to foster care. Once Marnie is sixteen she can legally be on her own and take care of Nelly, guaranteeing that they will both be safe.
Even when their drug addicted, alcoholic, neglectful, and irresponsible parents were alive, the girls were often on their own, fending for themselves. What the girls weren't counting on was Lenny, their elderly gay next-door neighbor in their Glasgow, Scotland, housing estate noticing their parents had, by all appearances, abandoned them. He steps up to offer some measure of stability and support for them. He believes the girls when they tell him that their parents have left the country for an extended trip in Turkey. With Lenny, the trio form an odd family-like relationship - until their grandfather enters the picture.
Although the details of the circumstances that cause the girls to accept Lenny's companionship are gruesome, they make an endearing set of misfits. The chapters are all in Marnie, Nelly, or Lenny's voice. Marnie's chapters are hard. She's drinking, smoking, promiscuous, and seemingly headed down the same destructive path as her parents, even though she is an intelligent teen who could potentially overcome her circumstances. She's a realist, tough talking, and brutally blunt and to the point. Nelly's chapters are often short. She is a violin prodigy, who is most certainly on the autism spectrum. She often speaks in a stilted old-fashioned manner and is socially awkward. Lenny's chapters are all written as if he is talking to his longtime companion and lover who recently died. He's been labeled the neighborhood pervert, but he is longing for redemption. He wants to care for another person again and he slowly takes the girls under his wing, caring for them as best he can even while he doesn't quite understand the extent of the psychological damage that has already been done to them.
What you might not expect is the humor mixed in with the grim in this coming-of-age story that also deals with normal adolescence pressures. The characters are believable and well developed. To be honest, the beginning chapters, when the girls are burying their parents, are repulsive and gruesome. But as the book continues it is painfully clear that all of these characters are wounded in some way. By the time the girls and Lenny connect, it is slowly becoming more and more apparent just how much they all need each other. Since we get to hear each of their individual voices, I felt a connection to all three of them and wanted desperately for everything to be okay - even though they were all in an impossible situation where a good ending seemed highly unlikely.
The writing was also incredible. Even when relating the most appalling details, O'Donnell manages to insert bits of humor. The bond between sisters is palatable, even when they are feuding, we know that they will eventually reunite and forgive. I appreciated the unspoken message that we can decide what will constitute a family; even an unconventional family is still a family and can offer love, support and stability. While O'Donnell is an accomplished screenwriter, this is her debut novel - and what a glorious debut it is. Grim, yes, but also very well crafted. I'll be looking forward to another novel from Lisa O'Donnell. (The trade paperback of The Death of Bee was just released on October 22, 2013.)
Very Highly Recommended
Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC for review purposes.