All I had to do was read the prologue to The Death of Bees by Scottish writer Lisa O’Donnell: 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.
“Yep,” I said out loud. “This is something I want to read.”
And I was not mistaken. The Death of Bees was every bit as shocking, mysterious, and darkly funny as the prologue led me to believe.
Marnie and her younger sister, Nelly, bury their parents in the backyard and try to get on with their lives. For Marnie, this means getting “pished” at nightclubs with her homegirls and messing around with all the wrong guys. For Nelly, this means playing the violin and acting as if she doesn’t come from degenerate parents in the projects of Glasgow. Everything would be fine – sort of – if their neighbor’s dog would stop digging up the bodies in the back garden.
The story races along with alternating narration from Marnie, Nelly and Lennie, the aging, homosexual neighbor next door. Lennie realizes that the girls are alone and need his help, and the three of them form a strangely-sweet family. Of course, this family has secrets. Like, where does Lennie keep going all the time? And what really happened to Marnie and Nelly’s parents?
This book was a fast read. For three nights in a row, I sat down on the couch and read until my eyes were bloodshot. By the third night, I came to the end of the book and was disappointed it was over. I felt like I had a few years ago after I’d watched the last episode of Season One of Misfits (a bloody brilliant UK TV show) and knew there wouldn’t be any more for a long time. Which makes sense, because Lisa O’Donnell is a screenwriter. This was her first novel, but she’s been writing for television since 1995. And in some ways, I could tell.
In fact, the more I thought about it, the more the novel reminded me of Misfits. (And not just because the characters say “brolly” for umbrella and call their mothers “mum.”) In the first episode of Misfits, a group of teenage delinquents accidentally kill their probation worker and bury him under a highway overpass. They spend the rest of the first season trying to keep this a secret, but, much like The Death of Bees, the plot line is jam-packed with other twists and turns and darkly comic surprises.
In Misfits, the kids develop magical powers, but in The Death of Bees the only magic is the fact that, despite their abusive and drug-addicted parents, Marnie makes straight A’s and Nelly is a violin virtuoso. Both The Death of Bees and Misfits, however, show the gritty side of UK teenage life: drug dealers, sex, violence, not to mention how easy it seems to be for fifteen-year-olds to pop into the pub for a pint.
Most of all, McDonnell writes The Death of Bees like a television series that wants to keep you hooked and drooling for the next episode, or, in her case, the next chapter. That’s what makes the book such a page-turner. Much like Misfits, or many of the clever dramedies on American TV (think Weeds, Desperate Housewives, Nurse Jackie), you never know what might happen next. There’s an element of shock value in The Death of Bees that keeps you entertained. And, like Misfits, the characters in The Death of Bees treat these crazy, disturbing situations with a nonchalance that is both comic and sad. So Marnie has to work for the ice cream man/drug dealer to make ends meet. Whatever. You do what you gotta do in the slums of Glasgow, right?
For me the best thing about The Death of Bees, besides the pure entertainment value, was Marnie. She was such a great narrator – so angsty and honest-yet-unaware. I almost wished the entire story was told from her point of view, except I also enjoyed hearing from Lennie. Through his eyes I could see a vulnerable, beautiful side of Marnie that she couldn’t see for herself. I could have done without Nelly’s narration, however. Although all the characters were a bit unbelievable at times, Nelly’s character was inconsistent and strange in a way that made it hard to suspend my disbelief for her.
Last night I decided to re-watch the first episode of Misfits in case it helped me write this review. The first season was no longer available on Hulu, so I paid to download it from i-tunes. But there was a problem in the downloading process, and then when I finally got everything working, it only played for a few minutes before the picture froze and wouldn’t start playing again. Technology sucks.
Thank God for good old-fashioned books. Reading The Death of Bees is just as good as – I might say better than – a smart TV dramedy. It’s tightly written, disturbingly entertaining, and, at times, weirdly heartwarming. And the best part? You don’t have to wait for the next episode to download. Just flip the page.
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