Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Death of Bees, by Lisa O'Donnell

The Death of Bees, the debut novel by 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize winner Lisa O'Donnell, places readers in the center of a deadly family secret, one that, with the passing of the seasons, remains miraculously hidden from friends and family alike. Hidden, until a curious dog named Bobby uncovers a bone. And then another. 

Set in Glasgow, Scotland, O’Donnell’s text focuses on Marnie and Nelly, sisters who have experienced a far from ideal upbringing.  Their parents, Gene and Izzy, whom both girls loathe, have been drug and alcohol abusers for as long as they can remember; because of this, the girls have been forced to grow up at a much quicker pace than other kids. 

Unfortunately, while they are much wiser and experienced than their years express, the law, of course, doesn’t see it that way.  Marnie desires to become twelve-year-old Nelly’s legal guardian at sixteen-years-old, but at the beginning of the novel, she is still months away from this essential birthday.  Yes, Marnie's birthday cannot come soon enough for the girls—because Gene and Izzy are dead and buried underneath freshly planted lavender plants in the back yard, and a visit from a social worker would be quite disastrous for Marnie and Nelly.  It would be unfortunate if their maternal grandfather, after years of absence, reappeared in their lives as well. Would be. 

Right next door, Lennie, an elderly homosexual man who has just lost his beloved partner, yearns for the warmth of companionship again.  He's had an embarrassing brush with the law recently, and the townspeople are proving unforgiving.  However, Marnie and Nelly welcome him into their lives, and having been led to believe their disgraceful parents have abandoned them, he does the same for the girls. The relationship formed between Lennie and the girls becomes unbreakable, and within the novel's pages, he illustrates their solid bond in the most selfless manner imaginable.  

The Death of Bees places readers on a vividly gritty journey through the eyes of not only Marnie, but Nelly and Lennie as well.  Stories of drug dealing and usage, friendship struggles, truancy, promiscuity, and sexual and alcohol abuse are prevalent throughout the novel, and O’Donnell’s words certainly evoke both sympathy and disgust from readers toward her characters.  Adding to the suspense are the many twists and turns of the novel’s plot.  It’s been clear from the start as to who killed Izzy. But who killed that abusive, "druggie loser" Gene?  All is not black and white. Certainly not.

Lisa O'Donnell's premiere novel is formatted in sections:  Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter again.  Throughout these sections, O'Donnell places text resembling a journal format, interchanging between Marnie, Nelly, and Lennie, who appears to be writing to a specific audience: his deceased partner.  The transitions from one entry to the next are exemplary, which, aside from the characters' names placed at the top of each new section, provides readers with a clear and smooth understanding of the storyline. Finally, the journal sections are seldom more than 2-3 pages in length, allowing for a quick, easy read of the novel. 

Though a quick read, the content was a bit rough to stomach, and at times, quite disturbing. Because of its status as a Young Adult Literature book, I was very surprised by the language and situations O'Donnell placed in her characters' lives.  Marnie's sleeping with a married man and then her boyfriend, Kirkland, are graphically discussed.  Lennie's receiving of oral sex is illustrated.  Many critics do recommend her novel for much older teens (sixteen-seventeen), but even still, I cannot imagine providing one of my students with a novel that so openly and frequently discusses a variety of sexual acts, derogatory words and phrases, and so on. 

But I get it; these young girls have had a horrendous life due to their horrendous parents. They were exposed to the deplorable world of substance and sexual abuse at an early age, and because their parents couldn't (or wouldn't) provide for them, they had to fend for themselves, especially Marnie, who, in the text, is a player in the drug game in order to bring home some money for her and her sister, for whom she feels responsible.  Her perception of love is certainly skewed, likely because her mother provided such a poor example for her.  A reader may even apply Marnie's uncouth actions throughout the text to the age-old Nature vs. Nurture argument here. One particular excerpt reveals Marnie's ignorance, and explains her promiscuity:

Marnie: "I wish I'd never met Kirkland. I wish I'd followed my instincts and told him to f*** off, but he was so nice to me."
Lennie: "Marnie, you don't have to love everyone who's nice to you. People should be nice to each other" (O'Donnell 193).

I do see why all of the sex and swearing presents itself in the text.  People's actions and words often reflect the company they keep. However, the extent of the graphic nature of Marnie's sexual endeavors and flippant swearing has, in my opinion, no place in a Young Adult text.

Language aside, there are definitely parts of this novel in which teenagers, in one way or another, would certainly be able to relate: Defiance against parents/authority. Expression of homophobia. The beginning and ending of romantic relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual. Drug/alcohol abuse. Cancer. The suffering and death of loved ones. 

For a fortunate few, these concepts may appear foreign; however, I would imagine that students have been touched by at least a couple of these topics discussed in The Death of Bees.

Overall, while I found the text intriguing, suspenseful, and smoothly flowing, I do not recommend this novel be read by teens under eighteen, and definitely not in a classroom setting.  I think that we teachers can investigate other Young Adult texts that might have a similar story, yet are absent of unnecessary vulgar language and sexual references. 
Please view author Lisa O'Donnell's official webpage for her brief biography. 
Please view a Huntington Post interview with Lisa O'Donnell about her successful novel The Death of Bees.


Heather Nelson said...


Thanks for sharing this review and kicking off our Spring 2014 blogging bonanza! I appreciate your concerns about the sexual content and inappropriate language but am curious about the text's complexity. Aside from concerns about inappropriate content and language, do you feel the text is complex enough for young adult readers? If so, what makes it complex (or not, & what grade level would be most appropriate?

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this text. I've never read it myself, but I can imagine it might be relevant for some readers and (hopefully) entice some reluctant readers.


Sarah Millen said...

Good morning, Heather—

Thanks so much for your comment! You pose a great question; despite my aversion to much of the story, I do feel that the text is complex enough for adolescent readers. Transitions between each character’s writings are flawless, and the author’s inclusion of three different points of view adds to the text’s complexity. The three primary characters cannot be more different from one another, even the sisters, Marnie and Nelly. O’Donnell characterizes these individuals extremely well, allowing her readers to make a variety of connections with each. Now, when I plugged a few passages of Death of Bees into the Readability Score generator, the text received an average grade level of 8.8. But man, believe me when I say that there are scenarios in this book that are absolutely repulsive. (I’d share, but I don’t even feel comfortable writing the words in here!) I have no doubt that adolescents will find the novel interesting, but I just can’t fathom allowing my students to read this as 14-15-year-olds.

Thanks again!

Sarah Hicks said...

I enjoyed reading your summary and review! With the content you mentioned, I would agree that this shouldn't be taught in school. But many students would gravitate to a book that is more risqué. I definitely want to read it (after this semester :))

Vanessa Chairez said...

Hey Sarah!

I enjoyed your review of the book. It seems like a interesting book but I agree with you that I wouldn't recommend it to younger students. I don't think this is a book for the classroom.


Heather Nelson said...

Hey Sarah,
Thanks for your reply! Sorry it took me so long to respond. I understand your concerns about some of the content. Thanks for the grade level calculation.

Anonymous said...

I'm all about books that have a family with a dark secret! It's just some great suspense and drama in book form (I can't even imagine what it would be like to have this as a movie adaptation). I like your in-depth review on the book and like many people, I also understand the concerns with some of the stronger topics and language that this book contains. I would probably use this book in a classroom with older students, maybe high school sophomores? I also liked your incorporation of images and the links that you provided for us.