It's Christmas Eve in Glasgow: 15-year-old Marnie and her 12-year-old sister Nelly have just finished burying their parents in the back garden, and they have no one to turn to but the kindly old sex offender who lives next door. Sound familiar? Didn't think so.
Lisa O'Donnell's wildly original debut, The Death of Bees, examines the intricacies of betrayal and loyalty within one family and their effects on two vulnerable young girls who are used to a life of abuse and neglect. Only Marnie and Nelly know the fact and manner of their parents' deaths, and they need to keep it that way: Marnie is not legally old enough to take care of herself and Nelly, and she knows they will be separated and put into foster care if the authorities learn their parents are dead.
Desperate for food and adult guidance, the girls take shelter under the wing of their elderly neighbor Lennie, a gay man who became a registered sex offender when he was caught soliciting sex from a boy he didn't realize was underage. Lonely and certain that the girls' parents have abandoned them, Lennie gladly plays along, cooking them meals, accompanying aspiring violinist Nelly on the piano, even pretending to be their uncle for the benefit of school administrators.
Unfortunately, their fragile idyll cannot last. Since neither girl expects anyone to miss their lowlife parents, they're surprised when their estranged grandfather comes to town to make amends--and dismayed when he turns out to be the opposite of fatherly Lennie. Worse, their father owed money to a violent drug dealer who's watching the girls' every move for a clue as to his whereabouts.
Part coming-of-age tale, part seedy urban drama and part testament to the sibling bond, this darkly introspective and clever novel juxtaposes sisters who shield themselves from a harsh life in very different ways. Marnie has learned to hide her vulnerability behind a shell of tough talk and easy sex. In contrast, Nelly clings to her childhood and couches her thoughts in eccentrically quaint verbiage. Despite their needs, the girls become as much of a stabilizing influence in Lennie's life as he does in theirs. Although they seem helpless against the power of the adult world, Nelly and Marnie's shared tenacity and desire to remain together allows them to rise above their circumstances again and again.
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. --Jaclyn Fulwood
Shelf Talker: A startlingly original debut about two young girls who must conceal the deaths of their lowlife parents in order to remain together.