Blood is thicker than bleach

Friday, January 4, 2013

"The Death of Bees" by Lisa O'Donnell. Harper, 309 pp. $25.99.

Some books have great opening lines. Two years after I read the book, I still remember the opening line to Emma Donoghue's haunting novel, "Room": "Today, I'm five."

Lisa O'Donnel's debut novel, "The Death of Bees," carries a similar first line. Marnie, the older of the sister-team of protagonists, opens with "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."

Marnie and Nelly are accustomed to abandonment. And so, when their father is found suffocated in his bed and their mother hung in the shed, they naturally bury them in the garden and tell inquirers that their parents are on vacation. They don't know when they'll be home. It's like them to leave the girls home alone without notice.

Had they reported the deaths, the sisters would have likely been separated into the foster system. And, since Marnie is about to turn 16 anyway, they'll just bide the time until she can legally care for her younger sister.

The next door neighbor, Lennie, begins to notice something is not quite right. He could report the absence of parents or guardians. But he's just lost the love of his life and he fears he may not have much time left. He has no children, and Joseph was the only man he truly felt for.

He could pry, but that would be sure to drive the girls further away. They've already been warned about him, given his lifestyle preferances.

Instead, Lennie begins to cook for the girls. He begins to listen to Nelly play her violin, and he starts to care for the sisters. Over the course of a year, they become an unlikely family.

Though this is O'Donnell's first novel, she won the Orange Screenwriting Prize in 2000 for "The Wedding Gift" and was nominated for the Dennis Potter New Screenwriters Award in the same year.

"The Death of Bees" reads very fluidly, almost as if it was meant to be a movie. This, of course, makes sense, given O'Donnell's background, and it creates very engaging characters out of Marnie, Nelly, and Lennie.

The story is told from each of their perspectives, changing as the chapter breaks. Through their individual experiences the story unfolds, giving separate opinions on the true intentions of Marnie and Nelly's grandfather, Robert T. MacDonald, who appears on the scene to look for his daughter and to care for his otherwise unknown granddaughters in the meantime.

In more ways than the first line, "The Death of Bees" reminds me of Donoghue's "Room." Maybe it's because both authors originated from the United Kingdom. Maybe it's because both stories carry a darkness brightened only by the innocence of the main characters. But, regardless, "Room" was an excellent novel and successful bestseller, and I'd expect nothing less from "The Death of Bees."

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