The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell review

’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.’’

Life has not been good for 15-year-old Marnie and her 12-year-old sister Nelly. Their parents Gene and Izzy are self-absorbed junkies living in squalor in a rough Glasgow public housing estate. Gene, when he’s not high, has a vicious streak and has to be kept from Marnie by a lock on the door. Unhinged, Izzy is unknowing or uncaring. Nelly, who is a “wee bit touched, not retarded or anything, just different’’ wants nothing more than a normal family in whatever guise it presents itself.

When Gene dies (under slightly ambiguous circumstances)  Izzy hangs herself in the garden shed while her two daughters sleep. To Marnie, it’s no real loss: ”They were never there for us … at least now we know where they are.’’

Marnie isn’t your usual drop kick kid. Despite her rebellious attitude and profanity-strewn vocabulary, she’s a straight A student with a highly-unconventional approach to family responsibility. She is the glue that holds the shambolic,  shattered household together.

The difficulties presented by her parents’ death are practical not emotional: How to stop the authorities finding out and separating the siblings – solution bury them in the garden – then how to stop the little dog next door from digging them up?

Watching over the fence, then gradually over them, is Lennie, their elderly gay neighbour still mourning the death of his long-time partner and whose desperate search for consolation means he is now the estate ‘’perv’’ hounded and humiliated, his home vandalised.  Lennie’s resignation to his lot is poignant: ‘I don’t blame them,’’ he tells his dead partner. ‘’I’m the bogeyman round these parts, branded and known. You’d be ashamed of me. So ashamed’’

Eventually, almost by osmosis, the three become an unorthodox but effective family unit. Unfortunately there is the little matter of Gene’s drug debt reaching out beyond the grave and the arrival of Izzy’s father Robert who has found Jesus but gradually loses the plot. Vlado, the local heavie with his own personal demons and a moral compass that flickers wildly and unpredictably.

O’Donnell’s experience as a script writer is evident in this, her debut novel. The whole story is told solely through the alternating prisms of Marnie, Nelly and Lennie yet there is none of the intrusive scene-setting declarations that too often infiltrates this style of narrative. Instead it’s as if each character is turning to talk directly to you to make sure you are following their version of events. Undoubtedly it will translate well to the cinema or the stage.

The Death of Bees is a raw but highly-effective take on what really constitutes family and the extraordinary power of survival.

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