Never were there such devoted sisters in black comedy of death and darkness
Although this is her debut novel, Lisa O’Donnell is not without previous writing form. An experienced screenwriter for the last decade or so, O’Donnell has apparently decided to take a break from that world and try her hand at novel writing, and it’s lucky for us that she has, because this is a compelling piece of work which rattles along at a fair old pace, but never at the expense of character depth or emotional resonance.
O’Donnell’s scriptwriting experience is obvious in one respect when reading The Death of Bees, but not so in other aspects. There is undoubtedly a fantastic forward momentum to the plot, something clearly gleaned from her years writing for movies and television, but interestingly she has opted to deliver the story in a novelistic form that would be difficult to translate from page to screen.
The story is set in one of the more deprived parts of modern-day Glasgow, and is delivered via three first-person narratives. The central voice is that of Marnie, an outwardly assured and worldly 15-year-old girl, who takes no lip from anybody, but who has clearly been deeply affected by her rather disastrous upbringing.
Playing support to Marnie’s lead is her 11-year-old sister Nelly, a naïve and precocious little girl who tends towards the autistic end of the spectrum of behaviour, but not over-dramatically so. And our third narrator is Lennie, the sisters’ elderly gay neighbour, a man left on his own after the death of his long-term partner, and with a shadowy past looming over his every action.
The book starts with a bang: “Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am 15. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.”
And so we are launched into a world of death, poverty, drugs, booze, casual sex and more. If that sounds familiar for fiction dealing with the mean streets of Glasgow in recent times, O’Donnell brings a freshness to her narrative, thanks to the brilliantly evoked voices of her two young female protagonists.
These girls are undeniably victims, but they don’t see the world like that, and O’Donnell manages to imbue their world with moments of real tenderness and sympathy, despite some of the terrible things that go on around them. The manner of Marnie’s and Nelly’s parents’ death is unclear until near the end of the novel, but one thing that is clear from the start is that neither is much missed by their offspring. Wasted drug addicts and generally irresponsible parents to the point of criminality, Gene and Izzy are unceremoniously and secretly buried in the girls’ back garden in the opening pages, Marnie fearing that if their death becomes widely know about, the sisters will be taken into care and separated.
Needless to say, there are complications. Marnie is working for and having sex with Mick, a local drug dealer, who just happens to be owed a lot of money by Marnie’s dead father. Then Izzy’s father turns up after a long absence from all their lives, suddenly wanting to reconnect with his now-dead daughter and his grandchildren. Apparently off the booze and having found God, the grandfather grows more ominous with every appearance.
Then we have the social services sniffing round thanks to trouble at school for both girls, not to forget Vlado, a Russian gangster and former teacher back in his homeland, who has also had dubious dealings with Gene in the past.
In the midst of this maelstrom, the girls’ neighbour Lennie provides something of a safe haven. The sisters all but move into his house, and the normalcy that he provides is a welcome relief.
But always lurking over everything is the spectre of the bodies buried in the back garden. O’Donnell is highly skilled at cranking up the pressure on the sisters, and she creates a real sense of dread throughout The Death of Bees, giving the narrative a kind of fatalistic quality.
But alongside that sense of inescapable trouble on the horizon, the author also manages a lot of poignant laughs. The ridiculousness of the situation the girls have got themselves into is never far from their or the readers’ minds, and there is blackest humour to be found in the oddest of corners.
As the action reaches a feverish climax, such dark comedy is replaced by nerve-shredding tension, and it’s a testament to O’Donnell’s craft that the reader is thoroughly caught up in the emotional trials and tribulations of her two unlikely heroines.
Warm without being cosy, explicit without being shocking, and emotive without being schmaltzy, this is a powerful coming-of-age tale with a clear eye for the travails of 21st-century deprived living.
The Death of Bees
by Lisa O’Donnell
William Heinemann, 304pp, £12.99