“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 with that shocker of an opener, we jump straight into the lives of teenaged Marnie and her little sister Nelly who live in Glasgow.
Marnie is your typical angsty, self-destructive teen. She’s bright (gets As in school without studying much) but with alcoholic drug addict parents who didn’t care much for children, does the whole smoking-drinking-sex with older men thing. She’s been looking after Nelly, changing nappies at five, shopping, cleaning, laundry and all.
Nelly is a very proper 12-year-old who likes cornflakes with Coke, and Bette Davis. She plays the violin and talks like the queen of England:
“She has sentences in her head like “What the devil’s going on?” And “What on earth’s all this hullabaloo?” I’ve also heard her say “confounded” and “good golly”.”
And their parents Gene and Izzy were the kind who never showed up and never did much for their kids:
“They were never there for us, they were absent, at least now they know where they are.”
Essentially, Gene is found dead in bed and Izzy subsequently kills herself. Leaving the two girls alone.
Marnie is only a year away from being considered an adult and she’s determined not to go back to foster care, so they muddle along with things, beginning with burying the two bodies.
Their elderly neighbour Lennie soon notices their parents’ absence and reaches out to them, feeding them and taking them in. He’s lonely and enjoys cooking for someone else. He makes a good impression on Nelly:
“He smells of talcum powder, is possessed of china cups and matching saucers. How I love to hold a teacup. He uses side plates for breads and for cakes. It was all rather wonderful. Pristine. Polished.”
He really is a sweet old guy, but with his less-than-stellar past, he’s earned himself a bad reputation in the neighbourhood and is tormented by graffiti and other un-niceties. So he’s careful with the girls, never probing too much about their parents and their lives.
Somewhere along the way I wonder where O’Donnell is taking us with this story. She whacks us full on the head with that startling opener then we wander along, seeing through the eyes of enchanting and naive Nelly, brash but sweet Marnie, and loving and grandfatherly Lennie, as they make their way through the obstacles of daily life. In Nelly’s case figuring out the other girls in school and playing her violin. In Marnie’s case, drinking, smoking, partying with friends and her boyfriend. In Lennie’s case feeding the two girls and his dog, and wondering about the girls’ secrets. And in both girls’ case, their very very big secret that Lennie’s dog keeps trying to dig up.
She said she can smell rats like some dogs can smell cancer. She reckons one of them probably died in Izzy and Gene’s bedroom somewhere. If only she knew what had died in Izzy and Gene’s bedroom.
But in the end, what makes this story worthwhile are the distinct voices that tell this story. It is an honest, if at times brutal, look at life in Glasgow from the perspectives of two young girls. You can’t help liking Nelly, a 12-year-old not meant for this modern age. Marnie takes a while to get used to but she has a good heart. And Lennie is just such a sweetheart. The Death of Bees is a surprisingly good, wonderfully different coming-of-age story, an absolute delight to read.
Lisa O’Donnell won the Orange Screenwriting Prize in 2000 for The Wedding Gift. A native of Scotland, she is now a full-time writer and lives in Los Angeles with her two children. The Death of Bees is her frst novel and was the winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize.
I received a copy of this book for review from its publisher and TLC Book Tours
Check out the other tour stops:
Wednesday, October 23rd: Peppermint PhD
Friday, October 25th: Booksie’s Blog
Monday, October 28th: she treads softly
Tuesday, October 29th: BoundbyWords
Wednesday, October 30th: Book-alicious Mama
Thursday, October 31st: Olduvai Reads
Monday, November 4th: Love at First Book
Tuesday, November 5th: A Bookish Way of Life
Wednesday, November 6th: red headed book child
Thursday, November 7th: From the TBR Pile
Tuesday, November 12th: Peeking Between the Pages
Thursday, November 14th: guiltless reading