Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Death of Bees.
O’Donnell has written an extraordinary, compelling novel set in the poverty of a Glasgow home. Marnie, 15, and Nelly, 12, exist despite the neglect of their addicted parents, the ties of siblings creating unbreakable bonds for the young survivors of a painfully dysfunctional family. Now Izzy and Gene are dead, buried in the backyard garden by their daughters, but Marnie and Nelly have no intention of sharing their secret with anyone, prepared to carry on as long as possible.
Only their elderly gay neighbor, Lennie, notices how long its been since he’s seen Gene and Izzy and assumes that they’ve gone off as usual, leaving their daughters to fend for themselves. Prepared to provide what they need, Lennie generously opens up his home to Nelly and Marnie, cooking, washing their clothes, gently seducing the sisters to the respite and security of an orderly, albeit not legally sanctioned, life. In a perfectly orchestrated dance, the neglected girls draw close, seeking solace in warmth and acceptance, trusting their place in Lennie’s world. When the Big Bad Wolf arrives, it is with stealthy grace: Robert T. Macdonald has come looking for his estranged daughter, Isabel. Sober now, a Christian, Macdonald is ready to make amends for his former abuse, abandonment and cruelty.
Meanwhile, Lennie’s little dog, Robert, worries the lavender plants that grace the parents’ backyard graves. Marnie and Nelly are all too aware that the dog may undo all their efforts to keep the authorities at bay. While Marnie earns rent money assisting a drug dealer (her judgment clearly impaired by years of surviving addicted parents) and reluctantly falls in love for the first time, Nelly—a violin prodigy with a penchant for Bette Davis movies and Harry Potter glasses—resists the pull of her maturing body, preferring to hide behind her eccentricities and forced naiveté.
The slow, perfect waltz between Lennie and the sisters turns frantic, all three stumbling through the intrusion of a grandfather determined to assume his place in the natural order. Anxious to see his daughter after all these years apart and with the girls’ excuses growing thin, Macdonald’s waning patience exposes more troubling characteristics he goes to great length to conceal, though Marnie is suspicious. This is a man who will not be thwarted, pretending friendship with Lennie as a means to learn more about his granddaughters and their parents. Other forces converge as well: a small dog’s curiosity, a dealer searching for the money Gene has stolen.
The result is dark tale of abandonment, abuse and ultimate discovery, the fragile home of a lonely man and two orphaned girls too insubstantial to resist the insistent assault of the world. The monster is back at the door—this time in a new disguise—threatening to dislodge Marnie and Nelly from the shelter of Lennie’s affection. Yet it is Lennie, in the most dire of situations, who provides the girls with the key to freedom, to a future filled with laughter, with hope.