Thoughts The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell, Harper Collins 2013, 320 pages. eBook
For my IRL Book Club.
FIRST Sentence: Izzy called me Marnie after her mother.
What’s it ABOUT: Before we read the sentence above, we are introduced to Marnie when she tells us it is Christmas Eve, that it is her 15th birthday and she just buried her parents in the backyard. So we know she must be a scrappy kid and now an orphan. We go on to hear her side of the story as well as her younger sister and also a bit – quite a bit – from the neighbor, Lenny, who takes the risk to care for the girls. It is not a pretty story – one of poverty and crime, drugs and “family gone wrong”, with menacing predators all around. There is hope but it is risky to reach for, or so Marnie believes.
What’s GOOD: Marnie is smart but does not have any examples of how being smart might save her. What she knows about life is to survive it but not how to escape and create something better. She is angry and has zero trust in adults unless they provide access to money. If she didn’t have her odd, musically-talented little sister to care for, she would likely be sunk. Nelly, the sister, craves love and is willing to take chances on those opportunities. I really liked Nelly. Marnie was a lot tougher and was angry with herself when she doubted and sensed her own fear.
“In the end I go to the garden and tell Izzy, she could never keep a secret before, but given her situation she’s great at keeping secrets. So is Gene, but then again always was.”
The tension is remarkable. Being cold in Scotland at the time, the parents have been buried in shallow graves — the dog next door is extremely curious what is under those flower bushes. Certainly has some funny moments but one knows it can’t end well.
What’s NOT so good: It is not a book of butterflies and daisies.
It is always a risky move to make the people you want to cheer for be characters with ugly behaviors but the author somehow succeeds in this. She provides a subtle hope that ‘bad’ people can rise above their poor decisions and change for the good. Some do, some do not, some we may never know. This book has few sentimental waverings, nor is it harshly cynical. This isn’t a criticism so my heading for this paragraph is misleading. I suspect the grittiness is what drove my friend to decide to not finish it. I spent some time trying to figure out what it was the HL found so objectionable and I think it was too dark. I’m thinking that she can’t abide child abuse and the situations like what Marnie and Nelly have to endure. And that’s OK: it aint pretty – just sayin’.
The LitLovers site for this book (the cover links to it) has Discussion Questions which I considered* answering for this post. Let’s discuss the title. The death of honeybees becomes a question and concern for Nelly but her sister Marnie can’t answer it and finally tells her the blunt sad truth that “no one knows!” and to SHUT UP about it. Nelly hates when she can’t get an answer for her questions; Marnie prefers to forget and endure. But Nelly knows this is one more example that the world just doesn’t care. I think the author is telling us that we/people/governments/whoever-is-in-charge don’t have a clue what to do nor how to deal with poverty. Shouldn’t someone figure this out? We are not doing a good job of helping our children.
FINAL thoughts: I liked the telling of this story. It is brutal and unique.
RATING: Better than a three-slicer and not outstanding enough to be a five. That leaves me with four slices of pie.
Other REVIEWS: Judith at Leeswamme’s Blog has an excellent description of plot, the Literary Feline agrees that “It is dark and at times gritty”, AND is very good (She also provides excellent plot), Caribousmom can’t quite recommend it and says it is “just too dark and left me feeling disheartened rather than hopeful.” Farmlane Books calls it a strange book, that it provoked strong reactions and she “Recommend(s) to book clubs who’d like an animated discussion!”
I think this might be our best book club book discussion yet this year, based on the reviews I have read. I heartily recommend you click the links above if you are interested in this story.
“Birds keep chirping and music keeps playing. Life continues as another life ebbs away.
We have seen death before, Marnie and I, a mountain of ice melting over time, drops of water freezing at your core reminding you every day of that which has vanished, but the despair we know today is a sadness sailing sorrow through every bone and knuckle.”
* And then I remembered that this blog is supposed to be FUN.
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