"Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved." That's the knockout opening in screenwriter Lisa O'Donnell's mesmerizing debut novel about family bonds, loyalty and what we really owe the ones we love.
Set in a hardscrabble housing complex in Glasgow, Scotland, The Death of Bees tracks the relationship of 15-year-old Marnie and her 12-year-old sister, Nelly, left on their own but not exactly mourning their drug-addicted and abusive folks' demise. How their parents died is something only the girls know, and their lips are zipped. Instead, the plan is to act normally for another year, sidestepping the dangerous minefields of authorities, children's services and nosy neighbors, until Marnie will be legally an adult and able to take care of both of them.
So how can a book with a premise this disturbing also be so deliciously comic?
Part of it is the way it's told. O'Donnell ties her story together like a string of dark jewels. Separated into seasons, the book is narrated by three distinctly funny, tenderly sympathetic voices. The younger sister, Nelly, a spectacled violin prodigy prone to fits, lives on cornflakes and Coke, adores Bette Davis and finds growing up revolting. If her language is sometimes a little unbelievably fussy for such a little girl (she actually says "cleanliness is next to godliness"), her desperate yearning for ordinary family life is palpable.
Marnie is the salty-tongued caretaker who can barely care for herself. She drinks, smokes and dates Mick, a married drug dealer. She can't fit in with the other kids because "their parents are lawyers and accountants and mine are buried in the yard." Lennie, the gay neighbor next door, has been branded a sex offender because of one lonely night when he made the mistake of soliciting a young boy, but he's really mourning the death of his longtime lover, even as he grapples with a terrible secret of his own. The alternating sections are short and punchy, much like flash cuts, giving the book an urgent momentum.
Part of the pleasure of the book, too, is that there are more than just two bodies buried. Secrets abound, and startling reveals tumble one upon the other. Each of the girls think the other killed their father, but the truth is more shattering. Characters unpeel their layers to show us the truths they've been hiding. At first the girls dismiss Lennie as a lonely old man who wants to meddle in their business, but then as they spend more time with him, his kindness wins them over.
The three begin to form a sort of makeshift family, something they all need, even as Lennie's dog, Bobby, begins to take a bit too much of an interest in the bee-enticing lavender growing over the graves. Even the most derelict of the characters has a surprise of goodness. In one of the novel's sweetest scenes, Marnie is stopped from selling any more drugs for Mick by Mick's supposedly vicious Russian boss Vlado. Instead, Vlado takes Marnie under his wing, teaching her school subjects and making sure she gets her money from cleaning his house rather than by selling drugs.
A ragtag family like this, in the sisters' complex world, works, sustains and even comforts, and readers will find themselves rooting for it to succeed and for the girls to finally find happiness. It's only when a real blood relationship shows up that trouble begins to brew. The girls' grandfather Robert T. MacDonald, looking for their mother, the daughter he long ago cruelly abandoned, wants to take control of the girls and their life, and he isn't buying their hilariously inept excuse that their parents are "in Turkey."
Though Nelly at first thinks he "has obviously been sent to us by a heavenly angel to care for us" and wonders why they have to "mistrust every single person who crosses our path," Robert, newly Christian but still harboring a taste for drink and brutality, begins to upset their carefully constructed life, with dire results.
But then O'Donnell, in an almost sleight of hand, whips things around in a maelstrom of drugs and violence, all leading to an ending that is slam-bang surprising and radiant with compassion.
Wild, witty and as funny as it is unsettling, The Death of Bees is really about the strength of sisters, the sparkle of imagination and how even the most motley of half lives can somehow coalesce into a shining whole.
'The Death of Bees'
By Lisa O'Donnell
Harper. 311 pp. $25.99.