“Neither of them were beloved,” Marnie says on the first page of The Death of Bees.
Their father, Gene, was found suffocated with a pillow. He sexually abused both girls, and each assumes the other killed him. Their mother, Isabel, hanged herself in their garden shed. They plant lavender over the grave and douse the house with bleach to cover up the smell of death. To stave off Social Services, the girls tell everyone their parents are in Turkey on a holiday.
Gene and Isabel were so drug-addled, no one really notices they're gone at first, besides Lennie, an elderly gay neighbor who observes the girls' unseasonal interest in gardening, and the drug dealer who Gene owed money.
Fifteen-year-old Marnie figures that they just have to keep up the ruse until she turns 16 and is legally able to take care of Nelly. Practically, she's been doing it her whole life.
“I was changing nappies at five years old and shopping at seven, cleaning and doing laundry as soon as I knew my way to the launderette and pushing Nelly about in her wee buggy when I was six,” says Marnie. “They were never there for us, they were absent, at least now we know where they are.”
“Where the Lilies Bloom,” this is not. That 1969 YA novel also featured a tough-minded teenage girl determined to keep her family from being split up after her dad dies. Here, there are no Appalachian mountains handy to dig up herbs and roots to sell, and the drugs Marnie helps peddle out of an ice cream truck aren't exactly of the medicinal variety.
Despite the blight and grimness of the girls' lives, both have shining abilities. Marnie gets straight As, despite her smoking and drinking, and Nelly, who seems mildly autistic, is a violin prodigy.
Lennie, alone and desperately unhappy since the death of his partner, starts cooking for the girls and covers for them. The three form the first stable family the sisters have ever known, until their grandfather shows up – too late – claiming to be sober and looking to reunite with his long-lost daughter.
O'Donnell, a screenwriter, alternates narrative duties between Nelly, who talks like she's in a Gilbert & Sullivan play; Marnie, who talks like she's in a Guy Ritchie movie; and Lennie.
While Marnie is warm and real from her first, shocking sentences, Nelly's characterization comes off as decidedly stiff and theatrical, especially in the beginning.
“Good God, Mother, you scared the dickens out of me,” is her first line in the novel. “Where the devil do you think you're going?”
“I've also heard her say 'confounded' and 'good golly.' Drives me nuts,” says Marnie, swearing a blue streak in between cigarettes. (Nelly's only vice is eating corn flakes drenched in Coca-Cola.)
While Marnie is determined to protect her Harry Potter-obsessed, animal-loving little sister, over the course of “The Death of Bees” it becomes apparent that she may be the one most in need of rescue.
O'Donnell walks a fine line, describing appalling events without ever allowing the novel to lose its warm heart. The plot hinges on oxymorons like a drug dealer with a heart of gold, but as a reader, I was so invested in the girls' chance at happiness that I read right over such improbabilities.
“The Death of Bees” is that rare thing: a family-values black comedy.