by Lisa O’Donnell; Harper; 2013; 320 pages; $25.99
Lisa O’Donnell is a screenwriter by trade (she won the Orange Prize for New Screenwriters in 2000 for “The Wedding Gift”), a fact you might guess after reading “The Death of Bees.”
The author’s first novel is littered with evidence of her cinema background: a plot that suspends belief, an army of shady antagonists and two camera-ready young heroines — one foul-mouthed in short skirts, the other a Bogart-quoting violin prodigy.
Even the opening scene seems destined for a Hollywood retelling.
The time: Christmas Eve morning. The place: the slums of Glasgow, Scotland. Marnie and Nelly wake to find a gruesome discovery — the body of their father rotting in an upstairs bedroom, the body of their mother hanging lifeless in the garage.
Forgoing the usual responses of screaming, mourning or calling the police — after all, “neither of them were beloved,” as 15-year-old Marnie points out — the sisters opt to bury their parents in the backyard rather than risk separation and foster homes at the hands of Social Services.
Things go smoothly for a time. They return to school to keep the truancy officers at bay, and Marnie pays the bills with her after-school job, dealing drugs out of her married boyfriend’s ice cream truck.
The only problem is Bobby, the neighbor’s dog who insists on pulling body parts from their garden.
But soon the girls have bigger problems. A number of unsavory characters are sniffing around for the missing couple, including a ripped-off drug dealer, a scorned mistress and a long-lost grandfather who’s repented from his violent ways and hoping to reunite with the daughter he abandoned.
The only person who seems concerned with the two children left behind is Bobby’s owner, Lennie, a lonely old man with his own secrets to keep buried.
O’Donnell weaves a surprising element of humor through her dark tale, calling on it with pitch-perfect timing whenever the gore gets too gory or the circumstances too desperate. Nelly’s earnest offer to reward her date’s good manners by playing him a song is at once hilarious in its absurdity and unsettling in the naivety it displays.
The book’s chapters are short — some just a few paragraphs — and Marnie, Nelly and Lennie take turns serving as narrator. While this makes for a quick read and keeps things moving at a brisk pace, even when not much is happening on the page, it has the unfortunate effect of also keeping the reader at arm’s length. The complex and sympathetic characters never quite grip you the way you keep expecting them to, the way they could with a more unrelenting narrative.
Particularly Marnie. Even if you understand her failings and root for her success, it won’t be with the vehemence this wounded but steel-willed character deserves.