The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell (HarperCollins; 336 pages; $25.99).
Lisa O’Donnell opens her brilliant, stunning debut The Death of Bees with the birth and death dates of a man and woman, the same kinds of information you would expect on gravestones. Except this man and woman do not have headstones; they are buried in their own backyard.
“Today is Christmas Eve,” O’Donnell writes in her intriguing and explosive opening. “Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.”
Immediately, she grabs you by the throat and does not let go until the very last page as she tells the story of fifteen-year-old Marnie and twelve-year-old Nelly, sisters who have just lost their parents and find themselves alone.
Marnie is the tough, practical, and protective one, the typical elder sister. Marnie is fifteen going on thirty, though, and as cynical as a sixty-year-old. Nelly is her complete opposite, charming and so obsessed with Harry Potter that she wears glasses just like his. “Another little foible of Nelly’s is how she talks. She sounds like the queen of England most of the time.” Nelly, fond of words like “hullabaloo,” “confounded,” and “good golly” seems so young next to Marnie. Their three-year age difference feels more like three decades.
I couldn’t help but wonder if the girls, namely Marnie, killed their parents. Marnie confesses as she buries them: “I was on autopilot. I wanted them buried and gone. I didn’t have time for tears, I knew we had a job to do and mostly I was wishing we’d got rid of them sooner and, to be honest, I don’t know why we didn’t.”
Neither sister misses her mother nor her father. Most of the time, Izzy and Gene were too stoned to care about their daughters, often leaving the girls to fend for themselves. Marnie practically raised herself, and now she is raising Nelly. Their lives are not that much different than they were before…except for the bodies in the backyard, of course.
Marnie knows the upturned dirt will be a tell-tale sign of something untoward. Ever pragmatic, Marie has a solution. “When all was done we covered Izzy with two sacks of coal and planted lavender on top of Gene, not out of sentiment you understand, but to better hide what was buried in the earth.”
The girls keep mum about their parents’ deaths. All the sisters really have is each other. In just a short year, Marnie will turn sixteen, the age when she will be considered an adult and can legally take care of herself and Nelly.
Things do not go as planned when Lennie, their elderly next-door neighbor, notices the sisters are alone and takes an interest in them. He is concerned about their parents’ whereabouts and invites them into his home and into his heart.
The reluctant Marnie calls Lennie a pervert and keeps him at arms’ length. However, Lennie is lonely and loving, and both sisters warm to him when he shows them more understanding and affection than their parents ever did. But he knows something is not quite right next door.
Gene’s drug dealer knows it, too. When he begins asking questions and when a long-lost family member turns up, the girls’ scheme begins to unravel. The girls’ home, the haven they constructed for themselves, is threatened. Their struggle to stay together and away from foster care seems doomed. But Marnie, ever resourceful, should never be counted out.
The Death of Bees is an unflinching portrait of how so many young people are forced to rear themselves. They are forgotten and slip through the cracks of the urban landscape, lost in the sprawl and even lost in their own families. Lennie is the girls’ savior; without him, the story and their fates would have been very different.
The distinctive voices of Marnie, Nelly, and Lennie alternately narrate The Death of Bees. O’Donnell writes this coming-of-age story in pitch-perfect prose. Both Marnie and Nelly join the elite club of young girls who literally come of age on the page, a group that includes Ava Bigtree (Swamplandia!) and Lily Owens (The Secret Life of Bees).
Coming-of-age can sting, just like a bee. O’Donnell gives us painful instances of violence, abuse, and molestation that are achingly real but difficult to read. The Death of Bees is a grim and, at times, depressing tale, tempered by sisterly affection, humor, hope, and, above all, love.