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Book Review | The Death of Bees

Though uncompromising in its content, Lisa O’Donnell’s Young Adult novel detailing the lives of a young family ravaged by drug addiction is a fast, compulsive read, Robert Pisani says.

1 October 2013, 12:00am
Lisa O’Donnell.
Lisa O’Donnell.


From Iain Banks to Irvine Welsh, most contemporary Scottish fiction is a combination of gallows humour and social commentary. Drugs, sex, death and the woes of the working class are common features of Scottish fiction. In her debut novel, The Death of Bees, Lisa O'Donnell certainly shows no signs of wanting to break away from this tradition.

The Death of Bees boasts some of the most visceral opening chapters since Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden. The novel starts with two heroin-overdosed parents decomposing in their bedroom and their daughters dragging their bodies into the garden shed so that the neighbours won't see them dig their parents' graves. As this happens during Christmastime, the soil is hardened by snow, and both girls struggle to dig the holes. No detail is left out. From here onwards, the characters' destinies only get worse.

Although the above paragraph sounds as melodramatic as all eight seasons of Desperate Housewives, don't worry: O'Donnell manages to turn the novel into a tender coming-of-age story and tackles other issues such as homosexuality, religion and ethics.

The three main protagonists narrate all the events in the book. This means that the reader gets three different versions of the same event. O'Donnell does manage to prevent this novel from becoming a tedious read by creating three very distinctive and memorable voices.

Marnie Doyle is your typical rebel. She's 15 years old, drinks, smokes and deals with many unsavoury characters that pop up throughout the narrative. She's also quick-witted and streetwise, and by using these qualities she manages to escape some dangerous situations. She's also a keen observer, and her caustic perspectives on Glaswegian society feature quite a bit, intensifying when she begins to date a guy from a middle-class background. Marnie tries her hardest to live like a teenager. However, because of her parentless situation, she has to behave like an adult, as her demanding sister needs constant attention. This makes her take more sensible and less selfish decisions. Like most coming-of-age novels, Marnie does eventually mature.

Nelly Doyle is Marnie's younger sister. Due to her intuitive intelligence, she learns a musical instrument without any lessons, and her use of the English language borders on the genius. However, because of her upbringing, she has a distorted view of reality. She has difficulty relating to her environment. At first, Marnie is impatient with Nelly, but as her responsibilities start to become more demanding, her tolerance towards her younger sister increases. I won't say that Nelly is the weakest character in the book or the most inconsequential, but her role is a sort of bridge between Marnie and her neighbour, Lennie.

Lennie is the key character of the novel, as he is invaluable in Marnie and Nelly's leap into maturity. Recently widowed, he is lonely and seeks company. Due to his homosexuality, he is ostracised by the neighbourhood children. Initially, when he finds out that the Doyles are orphans, he tries to adopt them, but Marnie is wary due to the rumours that surround him. Nelly bonds with him straight away. Ironically, later on in the book, we find out that Marnie and Nelly's parents led far more disturbing lives than Lennie.

As his worldview is complex, Lennie is able to fill the reader in on details which both girls leave out in their narratives. Thus his version of events is important for understanding the more thought-provoking sections of the book. By the end of the novel, Lennie's role has had a huge impact on the futures of the Doyle sisters.

The Death of Bees does contain some of the clichés that are common in young-adult fiction - controversy, maturation, unsubtle symbolism - but all three characters (and, technically speaking, a fourth one is introduced later on) have distinct personalities, so reading about their lives is interesting. Despite some of the text being written in a Scottish dialect, it does not render the novel unreadable, a pitfall which has afflicted fellow writers such as James Kelman and Irvine Welsh. It is a light, zippy read which you can speed through in a couple of days, leaving you to  think about it for a few more afterwards. 
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