Author: Lisa O’Donnell
Edition: Softcover, Harper Perennial, 2013
You can purchase The Death of Bees online at Hugo Bookstores.
A quick read with strong themes of resilience, secrets and lies, and relationships offers plenty for a good book discussion. Every character drags the weight of trauma, from childhood neglect to a brain tumor from drug use, alcoholism and drug dealing to sexual predation. The multitude of traumas in which every character is seeped underscores the depth of resilience each character holds onto.
The trio of viewpoints from the three primary characters adds dimension to the novel and it's these slightly offset viewpoints that not only draw in the reader, but offer much to discuss.
Marnie: 15-year-old protagonist living in poverty in Glasgow, who buries her parents in the backyard.
Nelly (Helen): Marnie’s 12-year-old sister who is “a wee bit touched”
Lennie: Old man living next door to Marnie and Nelly, whose gay partner, Joseph, has died
Gene (Eugene) Doyle: Marnie and Nelly’s father, buried in their backyard in the prologue to the novel.
Izzy (Isable Ann) Macdonald: Marnie and Nelly’s mother, buried at the same time as their father.
Robert T. Macdonald: Izzy’s father and recently resurfaced “Gramps” to Marnie and Nelly
Mick: Married drug dealer who sleeps with Marnie
Vlado: Immigrant and Mick’s drug supplier who hires Marnie to clean his apartment
Kimbo: Marnie’s friend who is bipolar
Susie: Marnie’s friend, lives with her granny, terrific actress
Point of View
The interleaved viewpoints both move the plot forward quickly and overlap the narrative in welcome redundancy. Each character is frequently self-deprecating, and often their best traits are revealed only through other characters. For instance Lennie, “You’d be ashamed of me, Joseph, so ashamed.” page 34 and “How you loved that crumble and I was so mean about it, I wouldn’t give you the recipe in case you left me and made it for someone else.” page 43. While Marnie describes Lennie as “Old guy’s full of remorse, full of shame…” page 44 and Nelly says he’s “an amusing type of fellow and a real sport,” page 46. Marnie says of herself, “Truth is I don’t hate anyone. Just me. Only me,” page 210.
Why do we sometimes see the worst in ourselves while others see the best? Which is the truth?
While all three characters speak in the first person, Lennie speaks directly to his deceased partner, Joseph. How does this narration broaden the storyline or change the perspective? Is Lennie’s narration more or less emotive because of this connection? Who might Marnie and Nelly told their stories to? How do the overlapping narratives add dimension to the story and the characters?
Every character carries significant trauma. Marnie, herself a victim of extreme neglect, sympathizes with the abuse the newest immigrants face. Individuals who were “doctors and nurses, teachers and lawyers, educated people forced out of nice homes in beautiful lands… survived rape, starvation and homelessness, to have escaped death at the hands of genocidal maniacs only to end up in a moldy housing estate,” where they “endure the food stamps, the local abuse, the secondhand clothing…” page 21.
In what ways do we as individuals relate best to and sympathize the most with others dealt a similar plight?
Marnie says, “I suppose I’ve always taken care of us really. I was changing nappies at five years old and shopping at seven, cleaning and doing laundry as soon as I knew my way to the launderette and pushing Nelly about in her wee buggy when I was six” page 9. Marnie and Nelly were abused by their drug-addicted father and the parents’ neglect forced Marnie to mature at far too young an age.
From this traumatic upbringing, Marnie is resourceful and humorous. Where did this come from? Why do some people have depth of resilience and others so little? Where does resilience come from? Who have you known that was resilient? Where did their resilience grow from? How can parents, teachers and other role models help instill or nurture resilience in children?
When Lennie takes the girls to Loch, he sees them as the children they are— throwing stones and collecting shells and going for a walk and laughing as they run into the surf. How does this break from their day-to-day life buoy their resistance?
Secrets and Lies
The dead parents buried behind the house are kept a secret through lie after lie. Marnie and Nelly lie outright to Lennie, telling him their parents have gone to Turkey. Similarly when Gramps shows up, Nelly says, “I only have answers, all of them lies. Lies are imperative these days.”
Nelly even keeps Izzy’s final words a secret from Marnie, until she blurts them out to Gramps.
At one point, Marnie nearly breaks and nearly feels compelled to tell the truth, “And I want to tell him everything. I want to tell Lennie everything. I want to tell him Gene and Izzy are burke in the garden. I want to tell him I’ve been selling ice creams and drugs and shagging a married man. I want to tell him how tired I am and how I wish I was the one buried in the garden and let it all go,” page 170.
Nelly reflects, “Marnie is not the strength she has been in my life; in fact she is failing me in too many ways. I hardly see her around these days. I can’t imagine what occupies her, not whether is work to be done, secretes to be kept, and people to account for,” page 173.
Lennie keeps his brain tumor a secret from the girls. Gramps keeps the fact that Izzy had come to him when the girls were young and turned them away a secret. Possibly only Bobby, the dog, knows all the secrets.
How do the lies affect Marnie’s and Nelly’s relationship with each other? How do the lies affect their relationships with Lennie, Gramps, school officials and friends? Was there a reasonable alternative for the sisters? If it weren’t for Lennie, do you think the sisters could have escaped from their lie? In what way is the truth revealed?
When have you known someone who has been caught up in a lie and needed an escape route? How often is the escape through the truth?
When Lennie finally learns the secret the girls share he muses, “I don’t know how I could have missed it… I return to the shadows they carry in their eyes and reflect on the long gazes they have shared, a gentle hand quietly urging silence upon a shoulder, a cough to interrupt a careless thought hastily replace with another… Mostly I think of them keeping this secret all this time and the burden they have walked with every single day since they have lived here,” page 227.
When have you seen a secret revealed and wondered how you could have missed it when it seems so apparent in hindsight?
Lennie knows they are keeping a secret and let’s them hold on to it, “I’m glad the girls have one another, it’s a lonely journey otherwise and so I leave them with their secrets and the things they share. It bonds them and keeps them strong,” page 66
In addition, Lennie steps in like a father-figure or grandfather-figure offering Marnie and Nelly structure and discipline and nourishing food. The more Lennie steps in to help the girls the more difficult it is for them to keep their secret from him. And the more Marnie is scared of the comforting relationship, “he’s been amazing to us and cares for us, but it scares me. I don’t know why. Just does.” Why do you think Lennie’s care scares Marnie?
How is the relationships the girls share as sisters stronger or more tenuous than the relationships Marnie has with Mick and Kirkland, Susie and Kimbo, Gramps and Lennie?
End of Life
As Lennie faces his death, he considers, “I have much to organize now. Affairs to get in order a life to tidy away… I hope to die in my sleep, Joseph, not knowing , just closing my eyes and forgetting the things I am leaving behind. I don’t want to die with my heart breaking. I don’t want to die at all.” page 161
How do you want to die? Do you have things to get in order? Relationships to mend? Conversations to share?
“In my mind I snapped this image and store it in my memory.” page 234. How often I have done the same and find that those times I conscientiously hold onto an image are some of my strongest visual memories. page 234
"Courage is what is needed now, courage and stealth, for there is much to fight for and much to let go,” page 235. How often we confuse what we need to fight for and what we need to let go, and in both cases much courage is required.
"It's actually difficult hiding bodies and money,” page 235. There is a great deal of humor in this book despite the horrors each character is managing.
"People carrying righteousness like a handbag are dangerous." So true.