Irish author Paul Murray has given us an astonishing and compelling story in The Bee Sting (Penguin Random House 2023), shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize. This is a master storyteller at his finest: an enormous saga that entices you in bit by bit with the detailed minutia of life. Surprising, engaging, page-turning, funny, heart-warming, nail-biting, clever, ludicrous, bewitching, well-crafted and original, ‘full of misadventure’, with completely believable and relatable characters and dialogue, and a narrative with multiple plot lines that will take your breath away, The Bee Sting is one of those books that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading. The sheer scale of this novel – and yet the fact that we are so connected to each and every character – demonstrates the true art form of the novel, and what a stupendous achievement it can be.
The story itself is absorbing, but the way in which Murray tells the story, the way he has crafted the narrative in terms of structure, is nothing short of miraculous. But first to the story. It is about the Barnes family in rural Ireland, a family in trouble in a number of ways, but primarily (at the beginning) because Dickie Barnes’ once lucrative motor vehicle business is going under … and with it, the luxurious lifestyle to which his family has become accustomed. His wife Imelda is selling off her jewellery, their furniture – anything not nailed down – to keep up appearances. Their adolescent daughter Cass is binge-drinking and trying (it seems) very hard to fail her final exams. Twelve-year-old PJ has troubles of his own with the local bully and is busy planning to run away from home. This is one of the most heart-stopping parts of the book, as PJ puts his trust in someone to help him. (Can’t say more without spoilers.) Meanwhile, ‘Big Mike’ has his lascivious eye not only on the car dealership, but on Imelda too. What’s a man like Dickie to do? Well, it’s obvious: remain in denial about the world falling down around his ears and begin building a survival bunker in the woods behind his house along with his prepper/apocalyptic/slightly mad friend, which all seems like good fun and a bit of a laugh, until things get serious, and it’s not.
But as mentioned, the magnificent and curious delight in The Bee Sting is predominantly in the way the story is told, the message being: how far back would you have to go to change the way things are? What one small thing might have set the future in motion? (The butterfly effect, etc). When did things begin to go horribly wrong, and at what point might the ship have been turned around?
The large sections are narrated by different characters, with each person giving not only their version of what has occurred in the family but also adding personal details that only they know or of which they are aware. Cass is the first narrator. She of course has much to say about current circumstances but is only dimly aware of family history and completely oblivious to her parents’ circumstances before she was born. She has only hearsay. After several chapters, we have a section from the point of view of PJ. Being younger, he has even less clue about what is going on in the adult world around him, and can only surmise or make assumptions about why people act the way they do, and why his family is currently so odd. His plans to run away are to him perfectly doable but to us, the reader, he is treading in dangerous territory that he knows nothing about.
Next is Imelda, which is when we begin to get a taste of not only the current family situation but its history, including the crucial character of Maurice, Dickie’s father. Imelda is brimming with secrets and heartache, with ambition and desire, with regret and anger. Her section is written in an unusual way: no full stops and very little punctuation, yet each sentence still begins with a capital letter even though the previous one has not officially ‘finished’ with a period. This gives a slightly manic feel to Imelda’s story, as if she is running haphazardly from point to point with a breathy and imminent feel to her words. We learn much from Imelda about her life before Dickie, and so much of what we assumed we knew is dispelled as incomplete or even quite wrong. In this way, every narrator is reliable to themselves, but they are all each unreliable, because they only have their own story without the benefit of what is in the heads or hearts of other characters.
Finally we get Dickie’s point of view, a perspective that will again momentously shift the ground in terms of what we have believed up until this point. We have heard about him from both his children and his wife; we have accepted what we’ve been told. But of course, as with everyone, Dickie has his own secrets and fears, his own worries and hidden / guilty pleasures, and when we read about them, they make perfect sense to his character and yet there is no way we could have predicted what we learn. Suddenly certain things make much more sense. And other things become even more mysterious.
The minor characters that come and go throughout the novel, courtesy of the perspective of different main characters, are also fleshed out and realistic, and with each narration we get more insight into the others that are threaded throughout this book.
And then in the last quarter of the book, we get Cass’s perspective again, then Dickie’s … shorter versions this time … then Imelda then Cass then Dickie then PJ … with the deliciously awful mounting suspicion that things are about to go horribly wrong. These chapters become shorter and shorter to mirror the speed and panic which is becoming fearfully obvious, until the final chapter, when Murray – with such skill and creativity – writes small paragraphs in close succession from each of the main characters and a couple of minor ones, all coming together towards what we suspect is an explosive ending. Shorter and shorter they become, until it is only sentences we are given, short sentences from different perspectives, each person unaware of what is really happening. The ending is shocking and unpredictable and yet makes such sense that we wonder we didn’t see it coming all along.
And the bee sting? That was what started everything. Or was it?
I highly recommend this novel. I love Irish writers (so many great ones!) and I love the way I can hear the Irish accent in my head while reading. There are many wonderful Irish short story writers, but this novel is an altogether different achievement – a stunning and sweeping saga, bound up with secrets and history, that becomes only more compelling with every page.