I received this book free from TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell
Published by Harper on January 2nd 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Mystery
Source: TLC Book Tours
A riveting, brilliantly written debut novel-a coming-of-age story with the strong voice and powerful resonance of Swamplandia! and The Secret Life of Bees—in which two young sisters attempt to hold the world at bay after the mysterious death of their parents.
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 Hazlehurst housing estate isn’t grand, they do have each other. Besides, it’s only one 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? But he’s not the only one who suspects something isn’t right. Soon, the sisters’ friends, their other neighbors, the authorities, and even Gene’s nosy drug dealer begin to ask 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 each other.
“Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am 15. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.”
Launching right into the heart of the story, Marnie and Nelly bury their parents in the backyard after their father suffocates and their mothers hangs herself. With both parents gone the girls are left completely alone. Living in the slums of Glasgow, Scotland, Marnie makes a hasty decision to bury them both in the garden in order to avoid being placed into foster care. When Marnie turns 16 she can legally care for her sister so they just need to stay under the radar for one year. But between their curious but concerned neighbor and his inquisitive dog with a penchant for digging in their garden, a drug dealer their father owes money to, and a grandfather that wants to find his daughter their carefully constructed web of lies slowly begins to deteriorate.
Having lived with their parents misconduct their entire lives, finding their dead bodies didn’t have the emotional impact that would be typical for most people. Marnie had already been taking care of her and her sister for years so not having their parents there really wasn’t new. Except they were still there. Kind of. They were just in the garden now, buried under the lavender bushes.
It wasn’t until later that I connected the dots and the references to the sexual abuse from their father. The author manages to indirectly reference the abuse both girls received from their father without going into unnecessary detail but I almost missed it entirely. The only indication given of this abuse was the lasting impacts both girls exhibit (i.e. Marnie’s drinking and drug problems and lack of disregard for sleeping with married men and Nelly’s ongoing night terrors.) Their experiences nevertheless created an unbreakable bond between the girls.
Throughout the story, the reference to people being ‘monsters’ for actions in their life that have inevitably gone on to define them. The elderly gay neighbor Lennie who takes it upon himself to care for the girls when they so desperately needed someone. But due to a past transgression that labeled him a sex offender he becomes identified as a monster. Marnie and Nelly’s parents are more deserving of the label ‘monster’ because of the serious neglect of their children. The girls were forced to grow up at an extremely young age due to their parents terminal absence. Neither girl had anything close to a childhood and it was always a guessing game whether they would come home with groceries or drugs and booze. The children’s grandfather that appears and suddenly wants to be a part of their life to make amends for past wrongs is also deserving of the title. But that’s where the grey area develops: Do the girls actions make them monsters as well? Or is their behavior excusable because of everything they had already been through and what they were trying to avoid? The author doesn’t provide any clear cut answer in determining who is right and who is wrong but it’s safe to say that all characters are at fault in some way.
The style of writing and changes in point of view were brilliant. Each character had their own distinctive voice and their own important story. All points of view were told in first person but Lennie’s was written almost as a letter or diary entries to his deceased lover, Joseph. Nelly is quite the eccentric 12 year-old that is a violin prodigy, has a fondness for old classic movies, and speaks as if, as Lennie put it, “like she swallowed a dictionary”. Marnie, an extremely direct and to the point individual that carries a massive burden which she manages to somewhat hide. It’s obvious that both girls lack necessary help, they just simply don’t know where to look for it.
“What on earth is happening to the bees? They say it is an ecological disaster, an environment holocaust. Every day I wonder what the blazes can be causing this abuse of our ecosystem.” -Nelly
The meaning behind the title eluded me for quite some time and I actually spent several hours pondering its significance. So this is what I came up with, but I could be completely off the mark, I have no idea but it really does seem to have a simple and straight forward meaning. As Nelly stated above, the death of bees is an ecological disaster and an environmental holocaust as bees play a major role and their deaths have a lasting effect. Even though their parents didn’t play a major role in the girls lives, their deaths still managed to make a lasting impact on them.
‘I fear death, I have always feared death. It comes like a gale and never with permission. I would meet it again today.’
‘The Death of Bees’ is gloomy, somber, and brutally realistic but darkly comedic as well. Enthralling and thought-provoking, you’ll find yourselves racing to finish to find out these unforgettable girls’ fate.
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