The Death of Bees
A Novel by Lisa O’Donnell
2012 / 311 Pages
The Death of Bees follows a year in the lives of two sisters – Marnie, an incredibly intelligent but troubled 15 year-old girl, and her sister, Nelly, who is only 12 years old but has the eccentric vocabulary of a Downton Abbey character. As the novel opens, Marnie says:
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.
As Marnie and Nelly alternate as narrators, we slowly begin to find out exactly why their parents were not beloved and how the sisters are keeping the secret of their orphaning from the public. It isn’t too hard to do – neither of the girls have many friends, and the neighbors have always tried to stay away from the ill-reputed family. But the girls soon find that they can’t manage on their own, so they reluctantly accept the help of Lennie – a neighbor known as a “pervert” and sexual offender. But Lennie is also a narrator of the novel, and we soon see that his story and reputation have been grossly misunderstood by the neighbors, including Marnie and Nelly.
As the girls rely on Lennie more and more, they develop a very close relationship with their elderly neighbor. Lennie treats them like his own children and loves and cares for them unconditionally. For the first time in their lives, the girls begin to feel loved, protected, and safe – but not enough to tell Lennie their big secret. But when their long-lost biological grandfather shows up looking to make amends with his daughter, Marnie and Nelly scramble through lies and complicated half-truths to keep their secret safe. A novel that includes elements of gothic mystery, humor, tragedy, and coming-of-age, The Death of Bees is a highly original novel that is nearly impossible to put down.
I should warn you, however, that parts of the novel are gruesome and devastating. The story includes very descriptive images of bodily decomposition as well as aspects of child abuse and sexual abuse. In fact, most of the story is a complete tragedy, but it serves to remind readers that, even though we live in a modern age of technology and luxury, extreme poverty and horrific domestic situations still exist – sometimes right under our noses. And in this era of precautions, over-protection, and “stranger danger,” it’s more important than ever to have a core group of people who are trustworthy and responsible – especially for children. But Marnie and Nelly have never been able to trust adults – the only grown ups in their lives have repeatedly abused, neglected, rejected and abandoned them, so the only people they can trust is each other.
Lennie may not be the ideal caretaker for the children, but he shows them that sometimes you have to look beyond reputation to know whether or not you can trust someone – and both Lennie and Marnie know all about bad reputations. But even so, Marnie and Nelly learn about compassion and mutual reliance from Lennie, and he unexpectedly learns a great deal from the girls as well. The Death of Bees is a fast-paced coming of age drama, but it’s also a very tender and often humorous story of friendship, trust, responsibility, and what it means to be a family.