Can a book that begins, “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,” be considered a Young Adult novel?
In the case of Lisa O’Donnell’s The Death of Bees I hope the answer is “yes.” For, while the subject matter is disturbing — drink, drugs, sex, and abuse are all a part of Marnie and Nelly’s story — there is also warmth, hope and love woven into the saga of the year following the death of their parents.
The plot reminds me of old darkly comic british films in which people do things that you should disapprove of, but instead you find yourself rooting for them — ‘The Belles of St. Trinian’s’ only grimmer. O’Donnell, who has a background as a screenwriter, has a knack for giving each of her narrators a distinctive style and even when they misbehave you sympathize and are pulling for them.
Marnie, the fifteen year old whose narrative voice kicks off the story with her blunt recounting of the facts quoted above, is determined to stay out of foster care until she turns sixteen and can legally assume responsibility for twelve year old Nelly. Life in the housing estates of Glasgow hasn’t been kind to these girls and each has developed adaptive coping mechanisms. In Marnie’s case she has a problem with authority, and while in her own words she is, “Too young to smoke, too young to drink, too young to fuck, but who would have stopped me?” She’s been sleeping with the married ice cream man who is really the local drug dealer, and clubbing with her friends. Despite the chaos of her life, and her mistrust of the administration, she loves to learn and manages to get straight As in school while flaunting the rules.
If Marnie is a child who has grown up too quickly, Nelly, by contrast, has retreated into a fantasy bubble fed by music, books, old movies and archaic language. She has maintained complete ignorance of the approach of puberty and the changing social dynamics around her. She is an expert at only seeing what she wants to see.
The third voice is that of their elderly neighbor Lennie. Alone since his lover of many years died, he has become a pariah for an unwise, and deeply regretted, encounter with an underage male prostitute. It doesn’t take Lennie long to realize that things next door have gone from bad to really bad and slowly he manages to draw the girls into his life and provides them with food, stability and, ultimately, love.
Shallow graves however, unlike abused children, often give up their secrets too easily. Will Lennie’s beloved dog discover the girls’ secrets? Will the authorities swoop in and confine the girls to custody? What about their recently resurfaced grandfather — is he to be trusted despite his role in turning their mother into a less than capable person?
O’Donnell’s short chapters keep you turning the pages to see what will happen next. The brisk pacing seduces you and before you know it you will discover you need follow this story to the end — I read it in one sitting, staying up far too late to finish it. When you are done, you will find yourself sad to leave the company of these extraordinary and affecting survivors.
There are moments here that move too quickly and aspects of plotting that feel too coincidental, but despite these hiccups, this is a fabulous debut. If you are fond of darkly comedic coming of age stories you should read this immediately. I am passing it along to my resident teenage beta reader to see if she likes it and agrees that other teens would as well.