The Death of Bees: A Novel

  • Lisa O’Donnell
  • Harper
  • 320 pp.

The secret of two bodies buried in the garden lingers over the lives of two sisters in Glasgow and the elderly gay neighbor who befriends them.

Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy

Chekhov famously observed that if a loaded pistol appears in the first act, it should certainly be fired in the second. Similarly, when Marnie, 15, and Nelly, 12, bury their parents in the back garden, you wait with every page for the moment of discovery. Author Lisa O’Donnell began her career as a playwright, and her debut novel The Death Of Bees owes something to that discipline. The book is structured in three separate voices, which deliver the story in monologue form.

Marnie is the primary narrator — rough, tough and fiercely protective of sister, Nelly, whose quaint narrative voice provides a good contrast. Their elderly gay neighbor, Lennie, is the third narrator, delivering most of his monologues to his late partner.

The story opens in Glasgow, where the abused and neglected sisters have decided not to report the deaths of their drug-addicted parents to authorities. Rather than risk foster care, they prefer to wait until Marnie turns 16 and can legally care for Nelly. So on Christmas Eve, they dig a shallow grave for their father and stash their mother in a coal bunker.

From his house next door, Lennie notices something fishy going on in the girls’ garden. They’ve been digging for days and he cannot imagine what they are doing for Christmas because he hasn’t seen the parents in weeks. Nevertheless, he ends up befriending the girls and taking them in, and the plight of their new family is pretty much the focus of the book.

Marnie hangs with a very rough crowd, has a lot of casual sex and spends hours scouring the smell of death from the house, and yet she is brilliant at school. Nelly is emotionally erratic, with some sort of learning disability. But she practices violin and likes to play duets with Lennie, a cake-baking happy homemaker whose one foolish mistake in the park got him registered as a sex offender.

But there are a lot of logistics that don’t line up in The Death of Bees, and while a more thorough editing job would have eliminated some serious inconsistencies, the pacing of the monologues slows down the narrative, giving the reader too much time to notice what’s left out. How did they bury the bodies in winter without anyone seeing? Later, Marnie casually mentions that they had to “move Izzy again” (meaning take their mother’s body out of the coal bunker and bury it elsewhere). How did they do it? And how did they manage to burn a mattress in a nearby alleyway with nobody noticing, even though Lennie is watching their every move?

You long for such details to be written in scenes, rather than referred to in passing. How the girls can live with themselves after what they’ve done is the central preoccupation for the reader. But O’Donnell wants to tell a different story. Her focus is on the need that Marnie and Nelly have to lead normal lives — and on Lennie’s desire to nurture and care for them, in spite of his character defects. The most carefully crafted chapter in the book is when they visit Lennie’s Loch-side cottage. You get a real sense of Scotland here, of the cold damp, and the cooking that goes on inside the cottage, of shelter and protection from the troubled world beyond.

Another chapter goes into vivid detail about Marnie’s trip with friends to Lochgilphaed, and though it has verisimilitude it doesn’t serve the story or reward the reader’s central preoccupation: What about those bodies in the garden. What do they look like by now? What is all this doing to the girls’ psyche? Sure, Nelly throws a cake at the wall at one stage, and Marnie loses her temper a bit, but you want the gory details.

Then there’s Lennie’s dog. He’s been snooping round the flower bed next door and Lennie foreshadows what’s to come: “I feel very anxious at the moment, I don’t quite know why, especially for my dog … oh … I feel anxious at the moment and for the dog … anxious. And dog. I feel anxious for the dog. I am anxious for the dog.”

Finally, the dog unearths a foot. But the discovery doesn’t horrify. It’s almost an abstraction. To the girls it represents a kind of inconvenience.

Perhaps O’Donnell was aiming for a bit of black humor here, and too much detail would have spoiled the effect. But I feel she is really more concerned with the plight of people who make terribly bad, spur-of-the-moment choices that change their lives forever. Lennie only wants a family life —even though he had sex with a minor in the park one night. Marnie and Nelly pine for peace and comfort, even though their lives are bleak and the choices they make are appalling. As a reader, my concerns were different. I was hoping for the pay-off, more about the dirty deed and those bodies in the garden.

Amanda Holmes Duffy is a fiction writer whose most recent story appears in Main Street Rag’s anthology “Keeping Track: Fiction of Lists.” She blogs at


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