Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard…
This is only the beginning of The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell.
Marnie and Nelly are two sisters scratching out a life in Scotland without the support of loving parents, a reliable food source, or sound moral guidance. The girls are not necessarily surprised or devastated by the death of their parents, but the absence of adults raises issues of concern. The constant mode of survival that drives the girls’ lives takes on a bit more urgency because they know foster care will separate the two. The goal is to hide the deaths until Marnie is sixteen and can be considered a legal adult in Scotland. Once this occurs, she can take responsibility for Nelly without fear of interference. However, nothing can ever be this simple, and the adventure that unfolds is tragically odd and funny.
The Death of Bees is narrated in alternating chapters by Marnie, Nelly, and Lennie (a kindly neighbor). For those of you daunted by multiple narrators, rest assured the transitions are clearly marked by chapters. The idea of two young girls pulling off this stunt for any length of time, in addition to some other occurrences in the story, can test your limits of belief. Stranger stories show up in the newspapers, so maybe the situation isn't completely implausible. In addition, the author only allows you to know what the narrators want to tell, so the reader can sometimes be left hungering for details. Be prepared, because the book is humorous at some parts, but is weighed down with the seriousness of drug, alcohol, and child abuse. Situations that leave the girls neglected and used create intense bubbles of discomfort for the reader. The book does a decent job showing the effects of forced adulthood on children and the confusion that abounds from certain situations.
This is an easy, satisfying debut novel. Again, you have suppress disbelief at certain points, but some of that suspended disbelief will help create a sunny ending where one might otherwise not have existed.