Mysterious Book Report The Death of Bees

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell

Harper Collins, $25.99, 309 pages, ISBN 978-0-06-220984-9

The novel we’re reviewing this week is one of the most talked about this year.  After reading it I understand why.  It’s a mystery that concerns itself not with who did it, but instead with How long can they get away with the crime?  It’s written by a native of Scotland named Lisa O’Donnell in the form of three, first-person narratives: Marnie, a fifteen year old who’s been hardened by the bleakness of her life and situation.  She’s trying to protect her younger sister, Nelly.  Nelly is a twelve or thirteen year old prodigy  who plays classical violin like an angel.  Her narrative is self-centered and not much concerned with reality, because Nelly is in an Alice in Wonderland state that’s sort of denial and sort of if I ignore it, it will go away.  The third narrative comes from Lennie, the girls gay next-door neighbor.  He’s an old man whose narrative is addressed to his dead lover, a man named Joseph.

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell is a tour de force of creative writing in the English language. Each character speaks to the reader in a clear, distinct and unique voice to tell a part of the tale as no other character could possibly do.  Then, like a harmonious trio, the three narratives blend together to tell the story in its entirety.

As the novel begins Marnie and Nelly, two abused and neglected children of drunken, drug-addicted parents, are trying to figure out what to do with the dead and putrefying body of Gene.  He’s their father.   He’s been dead for a bit over a week after being smothered by a pillow while in a self-induced coma fueled by drugs and alcohol.  The darkness of a winter night finds them digging a shallow grave in the backyard garden.  After some initial hesitation, they stuff Izzy, their neglectful mother in too.  She’s been out in the garden shed since hanging herself the same day that Gene died.  After the hole is filled in, the girls plant lavender to disguise the grave.  All’s well at first.  The girls tell anyone who asks, “Gene and Izzy have gone to Turkey” on an extended holiday.  The ploy works for a little while, but then problems arise; like that pesky dog, always digging in the yard . . . always sniffing around the garden . . . digging.  The suspense intensifies with each passing page as more folks; like Mick the drug-selling ice-cream vendor who’s missing a whole lot of cash; and Vlad, the sinister thug Mick owes the missing money to.  And all the while everyone and everything is being observed by Lennie, the lonely old man next door.  If crime-fiction and intelligent murder mysteries are your bag—do not miss The Death of Bees.  Lisa O’Donnell writes with intelligent graceful compassion and understanding.  Her book is one of the best books this year and will be discussed for a long time to come.  It has the hallmarks of a classic; it’s unforgettable.


John Dwaine McKenna