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.
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The Death of Bees
By Lisa O'Donnell
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2013 Lisa O'Donnell
All rights reserved.
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.
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A Conversation with Lisa O'Donnell, author of THE DEATH OF BEES
You started out as a screenwriter and won a couple of awards early on the Orange Screenwriting Prize in 2000 for The Wedding Gift, which, in the same year was nominated for the Dennis Potter New Screenwriters Award. What made you shift gears towards writing fiction?
I worked in TV for a while but found myself working on other people's ideas. I wanted to see my own stories come to life and though I considered novel writing I was a little afraid of the medium. It took me a long time to pluck up the courage to write something down and when I did I wrote: "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". These are the first words Marnie says in The Death of Bees. I must have looked at those words for about 6 months before I had Marnie say something else. I just wasn't sure where I was going to place those words, in the context of a screenplay or a novel? I'm glad I chose a novel.
The voices of your two young protagonists, Marnie who is 15 and Nelly who is 12, seem completely authentic - their fears and joys are distinctly those of teenagers who've just buried their no-good, drug-addicted, alcoholic parents in the backyard of their Glasgow housing development. How did you get inside their minds and hearts?
I knew them already. I am a social gleaner. I listen to people with my eyes as well as my ears and I am fortunate enough to have known all kinds of people in my life, for better or worse. I have known poverty and the challenges that come with it and I have lived in environments where those challenges have affected the lives of others.
I knew many Marnie's in my adolescence. I was always drawn to the kind of girl who holes herself up in a cloudy bathroom. I can't deny I was afraid of these girls and I suppose another person might have run away from them, but I ran towards them. I wanted to know their stories and when they eventually confided in me I would hoard those secrets like a bag lady might. It was easy to write Marnie. It was like writing an old friend. When writing Nelly I just flipped Marnie upside down. They are bound together by love and secrets but if you look closely they are essentially the same person.
Where did the idea for The Death of Bees come from? Does any of the story come from your own experiences?
Living on the East Side of L.A I see the same level of poverty I experienced as a child during 80's Thatcherism. I was in my car recently when I saw this little girl maybe about seven walking in front of her mother and pushing a stroller. The mother was also pushing a stroller and holding the hand of a small toddler, but it was the young girl that caught my attention. I thought to myself "She's a wee mother" which later translated in The Death of Bees as "Wee Maw" when referring to Marnie raising Nelly.
Later, my sister sent me a docudrama about families in Scotland living with drugs and poverty, and again, the maturity of the children immersed in such a heartbreaking situation struck a chord. One child in particular was talking to the journalist about a father who might not return with the groceries for the week and go on a bender instead. She worried about Welfare Services getting involved in her life again. I wondered what the girl who waited for her father to return home with the groceries would do if she had had the money to go for the groceries herself, I wondered what she would do if it was in her power to get the electric bill paid, and what lengths she would go to in order to survive parents who had essentially vanished from her life. The thought then occurred to me that these children would be better off raising themselves. That's when I came up with the idea of The Death of Bees and had two children bury their parents in the yard making them disappear forever, leaving the girls to their own devices.
It seems that in Marnie and Nelly's world, the adults are the children and the children are the adults - the roles are switched. Except for their neighbor Lennie who is a deeply flawed character with secrets of his own, there aren't many real adult role models for the two girls. What were you trying to say here? And how does this bode for Marnie and Nellie's future?
It's a sad truth but lots of children out there are left to take care of themselves and if you pay attention you'll see it all around you. The sin is not paying attention. These children possess a level of maturity that's almost obscene and it's thrust upon them if they are to survive the abuses of the people who are supposed to take care of them, but I wanted these girls to survive it. I wanted to illuminate the reliance, the strength, and the character it requires to endure what these girls are put through. I created adults as a device to bring love and protection back in their lives but when I wrote their grandfather it was to illuminate how little they were willing to tolerate and to underline how strong these girls have become.
There's a lot of humor in the book - readers will especially enjoy the scenes when Lennie's dog keeps digging up the bones of the dead parents - did you have fun writing these scenes? What other scenes and characters are your favorites?
In Macbeth to relieve tension Shakespeare creates comedy through the Porter. The dog is my Porter. I find people are more willing to pay attention to intense subject matter if they know they're going to be relieved with a bit of humor. It would have been too bleak a story if I hadn't peppered it with comedy. I like the scenes with the dog but I also enjoyed writing the scenes where Nelly and Marnie are burying their parents. That was comic to me and I got away with a lot, but at this stage of the material, though a grueling read, the reader knows that laughs are expected and forthcoming and give themselves permission to read on.
You've moved from Scotland to Los Angeles - Have you been able to see fictional characters and settings more clearly from that distance? Has your writing life improved in any other ways?
I love the US and I love living in Los Angeles. It is a city awash with experience and everyone has a story here. I glean from people what I can, but I can't shake the Scottish thing. It's what I know best, I hear Scotland whenever I write. It's where my second book is set and hope to look at themes that affect us all.
What's next for you?
I come from a small island in Scotland where everyone knows everything about everyone and so I love the thought of things that are actually kept secret in a world like that. My next book will focus on a big secret having repercussions for everyone who keeps it.
Who have you discovered lately?
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce [A Fall 2012 Discover Great New Writers Selection. -Ed.] is a wonderfully vivid book full of charm and tenderness. It's an amazing debut and I am looking forward to reading more from her in the future.