Sunday, 10 March 2013

The Death of Bees

"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."

And so begins The Death of Bees. This beginning (along with the opening chapters' gruesome detail on the disposal of said parents' bodies) suggested this novel should have been somewhat shocking. Set in a Glasgow council estate, sisters Marnie and Nelly have grown up with addicts; drugs, abuse and alcoholism are part of their norm. Yet, despite these heavy themes, The Death of Bees had me gripped from the beginning.

Told through a series of short chapters, we shift perspectives between Marnie, Nelly and their elderly neighbour Lennie. They are a diverse set of characters; Marnie is tough, streetwise and academically gifted. Her narration is often cold, her hard exterior masking how desperately underloved and abandoned she has been. Nelly is different; a gifted violinist, she talks like something out of a Bette Davis film, and her innocence masks the horror of her life so far.

After trying to cope on their own, the sisters begin to forge a close bond with neighbour Lennie; mourning the loss of his lover, he relishes the opportunity to look after the girls and have company again. He is cultured and shows them a kindness they have never known. However, their arrangement is threatened by the appearance of the sisters' sinister grandfather, desperate to know the whereabouts of his daughter, as well as a local drug dealer owed money by their father, and Lennie's dog's habit of digging up bones from under the lavender bush...

As mentioned earlier, there are so many issues crammed into this novel; addiction, abuse, abandonment, sexuality and underage sex amongst others. Lisa O'Donnell, however, shows real skill in not trivialising the issues, but not allowing the story to become bogged down in them. This is a tale about survival and the importance of love and kindness. As a result, the issues they face are obstacles they overcome, and the outcome is a powerfully uplifting read which serves a slice of (not always comfortable, but always true) real life.

This is a gritty, truly unique read and one I flew through. I was so disappointed whenever my commute ended and I had to put this one away; thank goodness for the weekend when I could finish it in one sitting! This is a fantastic debut and one I cannot rave about enough. Lisa O'Donnell has masterfully created a world of cruelty where kindness wins through. Every character is perfect and form a cast you can't forget. It's a definite must read, and a great addition to any commute.

(Available in paperback and Kindle edition at Amazon)

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