Today is Christmas Eve, today is my birthday, today I am fifteen, today I burried my parents in the backyard, neither of them were beloved.
When you read the opening line of Lisa O’Donnell’s debut novel THE DEATH OF BEES, you know you are in for something different. You quickly learn that the parents buried in the backyard are Izzy and Gene, parents of Marnie and Nelly – two neglectful, selfish, generally heinous adults now moldering beneath loosely planted stalks of lavender. But you do not know how they got there. Not yet. The girls intend to keep the deaths a secret. They know that once word gets out, Social Services will be knocking on their door, ready to separate Marnie from Nelly. The girls both realize that Nelly, won’t survive, or will just barely, without Marnie looking out for her.
And so they go about their business. Since their parents regularly took off, no one bats an eye now. Except for their next-door neighbor, Lennie, an old man with a sad past, who believes they have been abandoned. So Lennie takes them in – feeds them, clothes them, protects them – and something like a family begins to form. But, as months pass, people start asking tougher questions: their friends, the authorities, and a long-absent grandfather, newly sober, who claims the girls are his for the taking. The girls realize it’s only a matter of time before the game is up. And when Lennie’s dog unearths a hand from the back garden, the whole truth must come out, and that means big, unwanted changes.
THE DEATH OF BEES is a novel of voices, ones that will utterly win you over. The narrative is composed of the first-person accounts of Marnie, Nelly, and Lennie. Marnie is a brilliant, young cynic, who, despite her promise, has been swallowed up by a world of drinking, teen sex, and general irresponsibility. Nelly is the charmingly odd duck of the narrative. She is a twelve-year-old violin prodigy, proper to the point of being off-putting, who speaks like the Queen of England. And Lennie provides a sober and wise adult perspective to the proceedings, but we also sense the depths of his life’s sadness and its regret. Together these voices tell the story of each other, of what young people are capable of on their own, of what young people continue to absolutely need from adults in spite of their seeming independence. And, although the girls’ circumstances are grim from the beginning, there is much comic relief throughout, provided by delightfully sharp dialogue and a motley cast of secondary characters.
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