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The Death of Bees: A Novel

The Death of Bees: A Novel

4.1 69
by Lisa O'Donnell

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A riveting, brilliantly written debut novel, The Death of Bees is a coming-of-age story in which two young sisters attempt to hold the world at bay after the mysterious death of their parents.

Marnie and Nelly, left on their own in Glasgow's Hazlehurst housing estate, attempt to avoid suspicion until Marnie can become a legal guardian for


A riveting, brilliantly written debut novel, The Death of Bees is a coming-of-age story in which two young sisters attempt to hold the world at bay after the mysterious death of their parents.

Marnie and Nelly, left on their own in Glasgow's Hazlehurst housing estate, attempt to avoid suspicion until Marnie can become a legal guardian for her younger sister.

Written with fierce sympathy and beautiful precision, and told in alternating voices, The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell is an enchanting, grimly comic tale of lost souls who, unable to answer for themselves, can answer only for each other.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
When 15-year-old Marnie Doyle finds her father’s body on the sofa of their seedy Glasgow home and her mother hanging in the garden shed, she and her younger sister, Nelly, decide to bury them both in the back garden, in British screenwriter O’Donnell’s debut novel. Fearing that social services will put them into foster care, the girls undertake a desperate charade; they claim that Gene and Isabel are off on a trip. Notorious druggies and neglectful parents, at first their purported abandonment seems plausible. That’s what Lennie, the lonely gay man next door, believes; though an indecency arrest in the neighborhood park has branded him a “pervert,” the girls accept his invitation to come under his wing, with food, shelter, and companionship. But his kindness can’t erase the damage that’s already been done: Nelly, a violin prodigy who was molested by her father, has nightmares and screaming fits. Though she gets straight As in school, Marnie starts selling drugs, drinking vodka daily, and having sex with a married man. The situation grows even darker when their sinister maternal grandfather, Robert MacDonald, insists on taking them in, which Lennie doesn’t like. But his battle with Gramps becomes complicated when Lennie is diagnosed with—but doesn’t disclose—a fatal illness. The sisters and Lennie narrate alternating chapters, moving the story along at a fast clip, but the author’s decision to give precocious Nelly a prissy vocabulary and a stilted, poetic delivery (“A white syringe. The coarsest cotton. It’s abominable”) makes her a less believable character, especially as Marnie’s voice is rife with expletives and vulgar slang. The difference between the sisters in terms of personality and maturity puts them at odds despite their shared fear of discovery. But their resilience suggests hope for their blighted lives. Agent: Alex Christofi, Corville and Walsh, U.K. (Feb.)
"O’Donnell’s finely drawn characters display the full palette of human flaws and potential. Told in the alternating voices of Marnie, Nelly, and Lennie, this beautifully written page-turner will have readers fretting about what will become of the girls."
Herald (Scotland)
The Death of Bees is compelling stuff, engaging the emotions from the first page and quickly becoming almost impossible to put down.”
“Warm without being cozy, explicit without being shocking, and emotive without being schmaltzy . . . a powerful coming-of-age tale.”
Daily Mail (London)
“This vibrantly-imagined novel, by turns hilarious and appalling, is hard to resist.”
“Mixing The Ladykillers with Irvine Welsh’s The Acid House… O’Donnell adeptly balances caustic humour and compassion.”
Financial Times
The Death of Bees steadily draws you into its characters’ emotional lives.”
Examiner (Northern California)
“[A] chiller told in three voices which will intrigue readers to the last pages…O’Donnell has done a masterful job of sketching her characters…The end is largely unexpected and highly dramatic, but at the same time is the perfect ending to this chilling tale…[a] brilliant book.”
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“Lisa O’Donnell, an award-winning screenwriter, grabs the reader from the get-go...”
RT Book Reviews
“The author brilliantly paints the characters’ best traits through the eyes of the other characters, and their worst traits through their own voices.”
Spencer Daily Reporter
“In more ways than the first line, The Death of Bees reminds me of Donoghue’s Room. Maybe it’s because both authors originated from the United Kingdom. Maybe it’s because both stories carry a darkness brightened only by the innocence of the main characters.
The Hub
“The quirky characters and thrilling plotlines will leave readers anxious to find out what will become of the girls. This poignant, compelling, and hopeful tale teaches readers that a desperate situation can always be alleviated by reaching out to others.”
“This is a sweet, funny book filled with two sister’s unrelenting love for each other and their determination to stay together at all costs…it is a good read and if you are interested in being taken on a crazy ride, this is the book for you.”
Columbus Dispatch
“As a gothic novel and a psychological look at the effects of trauma, it had verve and nerve…O’Donnell knows how to keep a reader engaged, and her sympathy — and hope — for her characters tempers what could have been a sordid tale.”
New York Times
“In this first novel she pulls off the unusual pairing of grisly and touching.”
Booklist (starred review)
“O’Donnell’s finely drawn characters display the full palette of human flaws and potential. Told in the alternating voices of Marnie, Nelly, and Lennie, this beautifully written page-turner will have readers fretting about what will become of the girls.”
Shelf Awareness
“O’Donnell’s wildly original debut examines the intricacies of betrayal and loyalty within one family and their effects on two vulnerable young girls…With a gritty but redemptive take on family and the price of secrets, O’Donnell’s debut will be well-received by fans of mainstream literature and Scottish noir mysteries alike.”
Alison Espach
The Death of Bees is completely addictive. A beautiful and darkly funny story of two sisters building a fantasy within a nightmare.”
Helen Fitzgerald
“The most original and incredible piece of writing I’ve come across in years.”
Christian Science Monitor
“O’Donnell walks a fine line, describing appalling events without ever allowing the novel to lose its warm heart....The Death of Bees is that rare thing: a family-values black comedy.”
Houston Chronicle
“Wild, witty and as funny as it is unsettling. The Death of Bees is really about the strength of sisters, the sparkle of imagination and how even the most motley of half lives can somehow coalesce into a shining whole.”
Ladies’ Home Journal
“We loved this novel and think you will, too…The Death of Bees gives us one of the most memorable protagonists in recent fiction.”
Library Journal
Marnie and Nellie have a problem: they buried their parents in the back garden after finding them dead. Ages 15 and 12, they are desperate to avoid being placed in foster care before Marnie turns 16, when she can live on her own under British law. Lennie, their next-door neighbor in the Glasgow, Scotland, housing estate, has noticed the girls are on their own. Old, lonely, and a great cook, Lennie takes them in and has his own reasons for not wanting to report them to the authorities. The three get along quite well until the girls' grandfather shows up. There are other complications as well, such as the issue of the money the girls' drug-dealing father has hidden, and Lennie's dog, who loves to dig in his neighbors' yard. VERDICT Quirky characters with distinct voices enliven this sometimes grim and often funny coming-of-age story in the vein of Karen Russell's best seller Swamplandia! 'Donnell's debut is sure to be a winner with adults and young adults alike.—Nancy H. Fontaine, Norwich P.L., VT
Kirkus Reviews
An unusual coming-of-age novel that features two sisters who survive years of abuse and neglect. The story is set in Scotland, written with a distinct Scottish flavor, in very brief chapters told from the alternating points of view of the two girls and a neighbor who takes them in and ultimately covers for them when their dark secret is uncovered. The story starts when the older sister discovers both of her parents dead, her father suffocated in his bed and her mother hanging in an outdoor shed. She and her younger sister decide to bury their parents in the garden rather than risk a return to the foster care which they had previously endured and disliked. To anyone who asks, including a drug dealer to whom their father owed money, they say their parents are in Turkey, but eventually the drug dealer finds the passports the parents would have needed to travel abroad. The neighbor, who has his own secrets and heartache, looks after them, feeds them and takes them into his home. Meanwhile, the dead mother's father, who had abandoned her not once but twice, comes looking for her to make amends since he got himself sober and discovered God. He does not, however, treat his granddaughters in a very loving way. In the midst of these developments, the neighbor's dog discovers the bones in the garden, and the neighbor, in an effort to protect the girls he has come to love and cherish as his own children, moves the bones to his own garden and eventually claims to have murdered the pair. While dealing with this strange and surreal experience, the two girls also go through the more mundane trials of female adolescence--peer pressures at school, menstruation and the confusions that accompany awakening sexuality. The author's experience as a screenwriter is most definitely apparent, as the reader always hears the voices and can visualize the dramatic, sometimes appallingly grim scenes. Recommended for readers who love film.

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The Death of Bees

By Lisa O'Donnell

HarperCollins Publishers

Copyright © 2013 Lisa O'Donnell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-06-220984-9




Izzy called me Marnie after her mother. She's dead now, actually they're both dead. I'm just saying that's how I got it, my name. My mum had a boring name, didn't suit her at all. She was an Isabel called Izzy. She should have been a Charlie, I think of her as a Charlie. My dad had a gay name, Eugene. He never said he hated it, but I bet he did. Everyone called him Gene, but he was a bit of a Frankie, a Tommy, maybe a Mickey. My pal Kimberly gets called Kimbo, she's always getting into fights and would smack her own shadow if she thought she could catch it. Kimbo's name evolved from a slagging she got for being a total psycho and it stuck, like a warning. "Here comes Kimbo, run for your life."

My other pal is Susie. Her real name's Suzanne and for a long time that's what we called her, we never felt inclined to shorten it the way people do with long names, but then when we were about eleven years old she told us she didn't want to be called Suzanne anymore, she wanted to be called Susie. She thought it sounded older and sexier, I suppose it does. Of course her granny still calls her Snoozy, mortifying baby name. Then there's my sister, Helen, we call her Nelly, to be honest, I don't think she knows her name is Helen, she's been Nelly since she was a baby. Nell would have been cooler, but she was like Dumbo when she was born, so Nelly was a perfect fit. Izzy said choosing my name was a nightmare; she wanted something different for me, something sophisticated that made people look twice at me, as if they'd missed something about me the first time they looked, and so she chose her mother's name. I understand Emma was also a hot favorite, so was Martha, but Gene didn't like Emma, he said it was a weak name. He didn't like Sam either because he got dumped by a Sam. He also knew a Siobhan who got smacked by a bus when she bent down to pick up a fag end on the curb side. Gene's favorite was Elise because of a song by the Cure, but Izzy hated it, she was more of a New Order fan and I understand Elegia was discussed.

Izzy said I was tiny when I was born, a preemie rushed to the intensive care unit where I was kept in a plastic bubble for nine weeks with Gene and Izzy peering at me through Perspex glass. The safest place I've ever been. Anyway that's why I'm Marnie and not Eve or Prudence or Lucretia. I'm Marnie. Too young to smoke, too young to drink, too young to fuck, but who would have stopped me?

People think Nelly's nicer than me, but only 'cause she's off her head. She's twelve. She likes cornflakes with Coke and period dramas. She likes old movies with Bette Davis and Vivien Leigh. She likes documentaries about animals and anything to do with Harry Potter, she's obsessed with him. She also plays the violin courtesy of Sarah May Pollock, a music teacher who weeded out talent every year by forcing us to listen to recorded notes. I was never selected to play an instrument, although I like to sing and can hold a tune pretty well, but it was Nelly who identified the treble clef necessary to play the piano, an instrument she boked at, drawn instead to a lone violin with a broken string lying flat on a gray Formica table. Obviously she plays brilliantly and within a short period of time Miss Pollock ended up giving her the violin for keeps, a gift last Christmas, that's how good Nelly is or how good Miss Pollock was who loved to play with her. Unfortunately Miss Pollock left the school, was replaced by Mr. Charker, a trumpet man. Nelly still plays and like a master someone said and of course our school gives her a platform every Christmas mostly to wow the board of governors even though the school is not advancing her in any way by hiring someone else to teach her. Not that it would make any difference when she can actually play without music. Kimbo and Susie love to hear her play, so do the neighbors and I like it too except when she pulls it out in the middle of nowhere and starts in with the Bach because she does that, on the subway sometimes, in a bookstore on Sauchiehall Street, and on a bus to Wemyss Bay once. No one ever minds, 'cause she's so good but it sort of embarrasses me, her zipping away and me next to her smoking a fag like a total stranger, as if we don't belong together.

Another little foible of Nelly's is how she talks. She sounds like the queen of England most of the time. She doesn't say mum, she says mother and she doesn't say dad, she says father. She has sentences in her head like "What the devil's going on?" and "What on earth's all this hullabaloo?" I've also heard her say "confounded" and "good golly." Drives me nuts. Constantly having to protect her from head cases who think she's taking the piss. She also wears spectacles, round ones like Harry Potter; she's recently developed an obsession with him and wears them like they're real glasses, except they're not. Last Christmas Izzy got her a magic cloak, but she only wears it around the house and one time to take out the rubbish.

Truth is Nelly's a wee bit touched, not retarded or anything, just different. She doesn't have many friends, she doesn't laugh much, and when you talk to her about something serious she gets really quiet, like she's taking it in and then rearranging it in her head. I don't know how she arranges it, I just know it's different from how I might arrange it. She also takes things very literally, so you have to be careful what you say. For instance if I said, "You're fucking mental," she'd say something like, "I can assure you, Marnie, one is perfectly sane!" I don't know why she's not dead to be honest. You can't talk like that, not in Maryhill.

Gets to you after a while, even the teachers, they can't deal with her at all. When she started secondary school they put her in a class for total fannies, but halfway through the school year they had to take her out 'cause she's totally brainy at science. Pure Einstein stuff and then of course there's the violin.

I feel sorry for her. I mean she can't help it, being how she is, it's not like she wants to say everything in her head. She can't help it, like telling the toughest girl in her year, Sharon Henry, she should wash her "down theres" 'cause Nelly could smell her "foulness." Seriously. No censor. Lucky for her Shaz thought it was funny, which meant everyone else was permitted to say it was funny, even luckier, it wasn't said in front of any guys. Apparently Shaz grabbed a bar of soap and told everyone she was off to wash her "down theres" and then simulated cleaning aforementioned unmentionables. Hysterical laughter ensued sued interrupted by an irate Miss Moray, who wants everyone to fuck off so she can have her lunch. Now whenever any of the girls from Nelly's class walk past her they simulate washing their vaginas or ask her if she can smell fanny. Nelly doesn't get it. Tells them not to worry - "They're perfectly sanitary."

There's other stuff of course, like the rabid chitchat and usually about something totally random. I remember when Steve Irwin died, the reptile guy, for about a month it was the only thing she'd talk about. Steve Irwin's widow, his daughter, and of course stingrays. Where stingrays live. What stingrays look like. How to get poisoned by a stingray. You want to thump her when she gets like that.

I prefer the Harry obsession, it's quieter. When Nelly's reading, nothing exists, not even me, I love it when she's reading, I like not existing, even for an hour. I think the Harry Potter thing reminds her of Nana Lou. She read a couple of the books to her when she took care of us that time but those days are well over. We're on our own now. Izzy and Gene are dead and no one can know what we've done with them. We'd get separated for sure, they'd put me in a home and God knows what they'd do to Nelly. Anyway I'll be sixteen in a year. They can't touch me then. I could have a baby at sixteen and get married, I'm considered an adult and legally able to take care of both of us.

I suppose I've always taken care of us really. 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. They used to call me wee Maw around the towers, that's how useless Gene and Izzy were. They just never showed up for anything and it was always left to me and left to Nelly when she got old enough. They were never there for us, they were absent, at least now we know where they are.

Excerpted from The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell. Copyright © 2013 by Lisa O'Donnell. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Lisa O'Donnell's debut novel, The Death of Bees, was the winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize. She won the Orange Prize for New Screenwriters for her screenplay The Wedding Gift. She lives in Scotland.

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The Death of Bees: A Novel 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 69 reviews.
Twink More than 1 year ago
Eugene Doyle. Born 19 June 1972. Died 17 December 2010, aged thirty-eight. Isabel Ann Macdonald. Born 24 May 1974. Died 18 December 2010, aged thirty-six. 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." The opening prologue of Lisa O'Donnell's book The Death of Bees hooked me right away. Aren't you wondering? Where can the story go after such a beginning? Well, O'Donnell takes it place I wouldn't have imagined...... Marnie and her sister Nelly live on a housing estate in Glasgow. With the death of their parents Marnie is determined to keep herself and the younger Nelly together. So she lies - if anyone asks, their parents have gone to Turkey for a bit. It's not that much of a stretch - the girls have been left to fend for themselves many times as Gene and Izzy drink, smoke and party their lives away. But, Lennie, the lonely old man next door does notice. He begins to help them, feeding them and providing a clean, warm place for them to stay. But the questions start coming from all sides - teachers, friends and more. And Lennie helps the girls by lying as well. Until...... The story is told in chapters alternating through the three main characters. The same events are seen very differently in some cases. O'Donnell's characters are wonderful. Marnie is tough, resilient, brilliant but tiring of holding it all together. Nelly is wounded in many ways and seeks solace in her own world, often speaking as though she's in an old movie. Lennie too, is wounded by the world, having endured his own hardships. But the three together are able to find pockets of happiness and joy together and - dare I say it - the family that each has been yearning for. Until..... As I crept nearer to the end of the book, I accepted my fate - I was going to be up very late that night - there was no way I could possibly put it down without knowing the outcome. O'Donnell manipulates the reader magnificently. We are given subtle insights into the girls' past with each of their narratives that only intensifies the need to know more (and the rapid turning of just one more page) Their situation is appalling, but there is that little glimmer that maybe, just maybe it will be okay. (precipitating more rapid page turning) I absolutely adored this book. Every year there a few books that stand out for me, ones that I immediately think of when someone says 'Can you recommend a good read? Definitely - The Death of Bees.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the best books I've ever read. So raw and wonderfully written.
RebeccaScaglione More than 1 year ago
I received this book from TLC Book Tours in exchange for a fair and honest review.   The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell hooked me from the start.  I read this book over the course of one day, totally unwilling to put it down. The Death of Bees is about Marnie and Nelly, who have buried their not-so-wonderful parents in the backyard of their (potentially project) house.  Marnie is a 15-year-old, super smart but also kind of lazy teen, who enjoy cigarettes, occasional drug use, and being Nelly’s protector.  Nelly is a little “off,” an almost-normal girl, who just seems to have a little bit of social trouble. Marnie and Nelly need to keep the secret and survive, especially one the welfare checks are cut off. . . and they do so with the help of their “sexual predator” neighbor, an elderly gay man named Lennie who had one incident that has labeled him for the rest of his life. Lennie becomes a surrogate grandfather to the girls, and while he doesn’t know exactly where the parents are, he lets that go to both help protect Nelly and Marnie and also to have their company. They all have secrets, and through the telling of The Death of Bees, you realize that sometimes family doesn’t always have to be who you are related to by blood. The Death of Bees is a book I recommend.  It’s one you can read quickly, even at over 300 pages. Would you cover up a secret if you knew it was for the best interest of someone you loved? Thanks for reading, Rebecca @ Love at First Book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story is a little depressing and some of the language is offensive. The characters made this a good read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A jarring and raw plot, but ultimately a book about family. Two girls left on their own when their parents die (don't weep for the parents, they were scum) must find a way to stay together. The people who hurt and help them define the families these girls form. Loved it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's been a long time since I've read an entire book in one day, but I just couldn't put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an amazing book. A must read. Lisa O'Donnell is a fantastic writer and I'm looking forward to her next book!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A captivating story written in an uncommon style. Each of the main characters contributes in the first person, often providing a first hand perspective of a scene from each of the character's point of view. A story of redemption from tragedy, of family love found in the ashes of sorrow, violence and loss. Many wounded characters come together in this tale and in their compassion help to make each other whole.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Started and finished in just one day.....just could not put this book down! An amazing book about family, and how family comes in many forms. Well writen!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was one of the best books that I have read. The story is told in chapters by three characters. The characters will make you wish for better things for them all. A very interesting book and a book you will keep in your thoughts.
klbj More than 1 year ago
It's not a happy book. I didn't expect to like it. But I loved it; couldn't put it down.
KrittersRamblings More than 1 year ago
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings Quite an interesting book and definitely different from most of what I read, this book centers around two sisters who are burying their parents and at the young ages of 15 and 12 are trying to keep up the appearances to avoid being separated.  Their inquisitive neighbor enters the picture and provides another voice to the book with his own issues that he is trying to live with.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Once I began reading, I couldn't put it down. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved it
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was suprised by how much I really enjoyed this book. The characters are well defined and likable and the story holds your interest throughout. Surprise ending...The beginning details are a tad gruesome but keep reading...you won't be disappointed !
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved the story of the young girls growing up in Glasgow!
CoCoVanAron More than 1 year ago
I loved it.  The characters, setting and story line.   While a tough pill to swallow it was intriguing.   Very interesting read indeed.
PagesofComfort More than 1 year ago
Raw and Original What a strange, but wonderful book! This story was unlike anything I've read before. It was a little dark, disturbing, and vulgar at times, but it made the story raw and original. Marnie and Nelly are wonderful girls that are just trying to stay with each other, the only family they know. Lennie is a grandfather figure to them and loves the girls dearly. This book was great. Marnie is a little rough around the edges, and Nelly, a quiet, soft-spoken girl. They don't seem like they would be close sisters, but after their difficult childhood, they are there for each other. I highly recommend this book to everyone, as long as you don't mind a little vulgarity.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Absolutely entertaining as you love and hate the various characters. Would highly recommend this book about two of today's teenagers and their good and bad caretakers. It's a must read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really keeps you on the edge of your seat, wondering when the gig will be up! Great story about learning not to judge at first sight and the power of love on many levels.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of my all time favorites. I could not put this book down!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
brilliant and well written
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great ! !!!
magatron27 More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book immensely. I could not put it down. I read it over a 2-day span on the beach. I am interested in other books written by this author. This was written like nothing else I have ever read and I will read this again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Such a sad little tale, and sad that these things do happen to children in this world, but there is still goodness and redemption in the story. Well rounded.