Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Death of Bees.
Set in contemporary Glasgow and told in the alternating voices of two sisters, Nelly and Marnie and their gay neighbor, Lennie, The Death of Bees is richly atmospheric, a tale of two orphaned children forced into a battle of survival after their parents suddenly disappear. Marnie informs her younger sister that “we’re on our own now,” because their junkie mother and father, Izzy and Gene, are most probably dead or “gone to Spain.”
The girls have become encumbered by their place in a society that seems to openly disapprove of them.
12-year-old Nelly perpetually sucks on her cornflakes and coke and 15-year-old Marnie, a bright girl with an “utterly destructive temperament,” ponders the “pervert living next door,” O’Donnell takes great pains to show that the girls and Lennie are victims of society's expectations. Lennie
lives in a virtual wilderness after the death of his lover, Joseph, and his
cruel branding as a sex offender by the neighbors after he used his dog as an
excuse to seek out rent boys in the public park. Even as the callousness
quickens Lennie’s blood, he does little more than watch the girls dig and garden for days, blissfully unaware of the menace that hovers near.
Marnie, on the other hand, is well aware of Lennie’s presence, but she’s suddenly afraid of everything outside of the house. She gets the fright of her life when she sees Lennie at the bottom of the garden, his dog pulling at the wild lavender and threatening to uncover the secret that is buried there.
While Nelly is sullen, inhabiting her own little world, Lennie begins to take the sisters’ concerns seriously, his paternal desires set in stark contrast to grandfather Robert T Macdonald, who turns up looking for his daughter. A staunch conservative, Robert T MacDonald isn’t prepared for Nelly and Marnie’s tenuous state even as he waxes and wanes with regret, full of remorse and shame over how he treated their mother.
Into this landscape of moldy housing estates, junkies, wet weather and suppurating resentments, O’Donnell introduces us to a drug dealer called Vlado and an ice-cream vendor
named Mick who seems at first to offer truant, streetwise Marnie and innocent Nelly a way out of their situation. Hardened by urban living, neglect and poverty, the sisters long ago abandoned hope. Fueled by years of resentment, Marnie in particular is forced to snatch whatever
is offered and to grab at the things put upon them by strangers, the “unnatural comforts and the abhorrent cruelties."
The bleak beauty of Glasgow’s setting and Marnie’s unquestionable bond with Nelly clashes dramatically with the terrible, throbbing secret that connects the three main characters. With violent inevitability, Lennie learns what he must about the sisters and come to terms with the nature of his feelings while also finding the courage to respond to them with compassion and understanding. The reader is fully aware that Marnie and Nelly are going to undergo the impossible--kick the urge to look for a father figure and cultivate a relationship with a lonely man who has nothing to do with a mother who neglected her children and who hated herself mostly on account her of her own father.
O’Donnell thinks nothing of leaving us out in the cold as she explores her characters’ motives and means
then brings from somewhere out of left field a plot thread involving a long hidden stash of drug money. Marnie and Nelly fight to keep their lives intact, far from the meddlesome network of social services
as opportunity and cruelty merge in this tale of bleak psychological acuity. Everyone has a motive, and the sisters are forced to run
once more from their grief and secrets.