There are no ghosts in The Bee Sting although ghosts haunt its pages. In reality, they are the dim memories of the past, the guilt of past deeds, the longing for what has gone, the slough of younger selves shed to time, and even the apparitions of a devastating future approaching. Imelda has risen from poverty and now expects to return to it while Dickie, Imelda’s husband, watches his father’s legacy fail under his stewardship as he anticipates the apocalypse.
The Bee Sting tells the story of the Barnes family and it is one of the most brilliant books I have read for some time. It is set in contemporary Ireland but much of the story is steeped with the ghosts of Paul Murray’s key characters. Faced with financial adversity, Imelda Barnes, who has long enjoyed shopping and luxury, is now selling off her possessions on eBay. Her husband, Dickie, has run the car dealerships he inherited from his father into the ground and now spends his days in the woods behind their house building a doomsday bunker with prepper, Victor. Mike Comerford, who grew up in relative poverty in the financial shadow of Dickie’s family is being brought in to supplant Dickie at work (and possibly has his sights set on Imelda as well). Meanwhile Cass, their daughter, is finishing school and plans to go to college in Dublin with her friend, Elaine, Mike’s daughter. But both girls have begun a cycle of drunkenness and sleeping around, sometimes with older men. PJ, Cass’s younger brother, has problems of his own, trying to fit in with friends, as well as being beaten up for his father’s business misadventures. He may well suffer worse if he can’t find a final €50 to pay off Ears who says he was ripped off by Dickie. Yet Maurice, Dickie’s father, is rich. He made his fortune from the family business before he handed it over to Dickie and left for Portugal. Can he be persuaded to help?
Imelda Barnes wonders what has gone wrong and searches her memory for the crucial moment that has sealed their fate. Imelda believes in ghosts, literally, as well as fate. She has grown up under the influence of Rose, nominally an aunt, who is a healer and fortune teller with apparent success. You will see a ghost at your wedding, Rose predicts, and it is the first of many ‘ghosts’ that haunt the pages of The Bee Sting. Attending this secular narrative is the wellspring of a deeper story in the guise of a narrative backdrop: of ghosts and national stories of the mythical Sidhe, or fairy folk of Ireland. When she is young Rose tells Imelda the story the Sidhe who lure a traveller who has fallen asleep on the side of a hill into a mighty hall. There he attends a feast where he is plied with drink and entertained by maidens who encourage him to stay and not worry about the wife he has waiting for him at home. When he finally awakes he eventually discovers that his wife has been dead for a long time. Almost a hundred years have passed. Imelda identifies with the story. The fairy folk are tricky. They can take you out of your real time and deprive you a destiny. For her part, Imelda is obsessed with the loss of Frank, Dickie’s brother, to whom she was originally engaged. And like the man of the story, Dickie has been lured into the woods and has literally lost himself to the mad schemes of Victor, who cannot believe in the viability of their present.
How did the family get to this point? The answers lie in the past and the past is full of ghosts and secrets: what is the secret of Dickie’s accident during his university days in London? And why did Imelda marry Dickie, really? That is the question upon which this novel pivots. As the family unravels we are given insights into a few crucial months from the perspective of each major character, but the story of the Barnes family inevitably stretches into the past, around the day of Dickie and Imelda’s wedding, the strange events that drew them together and the bee sting that seems, in retrospect, to be a harbinger of doom.
On the face of it, it would seem simple. When Imelda married Dickie Barnes she thought she had escaped a life of poverty and violence. Her father was a former fighter, and though he had never laid hands upon her, he had regularly beaten her brothers and was proud of his physical prowess. Imelda had grown up in poverty, but when she met Frank Barnes, a local Gaelic footballer, hero to everyone in the town and son of Maurice, she thought she had it made. But Frank had his own troubles: the pressure of expectation from fans; the expectations of his father and a life he feels he has lost control of. When he tragically dies in an accident Frank’s father is consoled by Imelda’s presence. But as she spends time in the Barnes household in the aftermath of Frank’s death she is increasingly comforted by Dickie, Frank’s older brother. The seemingly inevitable happens. Imelda gets pregnant by Dickie and they marry. Imelda still has a pathway out of poverty, it seems. But the marriage is plagued by bad luck from the start. Years later, Cass discovers that there are no photographs of her incredibly beautiful mother from that wedding day, and learns that a bee had gotten caught in Imelda’s veil on the way to the wedding. She was stung near the eye and her face blew up. Bad luck seems to have plagued the marriage from the beginning.
The Bee Sting is an immersive read with compelling characters and plot. The first part of the book is filled with long languorous chapters that engross its reader in the same story across a series of months from the perspective of each of the main characters. The pace of the last quarter of the novel picks up as the stories converge, and the final section is telegraphed in short bursts of action reminiscent of the fast cuts of film. The ending is devastatingly good and a culmination of everything the book has been about. Murray’s genius is that he balances the edge-of-your-seat tension with insights into his characters and the world they (and we) inhabit.
Death permeates the novel. Death is the past and all associations with it. Murray weaves this idea throughout: of the threat of that which has been buried – perhaps the past or even our own hidden natures – rising to confront us once more. In some instances the idea is introduced subtly. Elaine, for instance, finds the cycles of nature creepy: how crops die and rise again, suggesting the cyclic nature of corn deities in older cultures. It is an idea that finds fuller expression for Elaine and Cass when their relieving teacher tells them the story of Sylvia Plath and her first suicide attempt:
Plath had taken a whole load of sleeping pills . . . and hidden under her house . . . She crawled into this crawl-space and lay down there to die. Everyone thought she was missing . . . They were searching all over town for her. But the whole time . . . she was unconscious under her house, basically rotting . . . Rotting while alive and then reappearing out of the ground literally like a zombie . . .
This language is later echoed to describe the effect of the floods that affect the community: “The air still stank from the flood, as if there was a body rotting underneath the town.” In that same flood a friend of PJ’s, Cian Conlon, loses his pet rabbit. It is found a few days later but the rabbit’s behaviour is markedly different:
It huddled in a corner of its hutch, it stared at you in this quite freaky unsettling way, it had developed this menacing snakelike kind of hiss. Till the question became unavoidable as Cain Conlon asked on his YouTube channel, Is this actually the same rabbit?
PJ’s obsession with Kevin Kölsch’s and Dennis Widmyer’s film Pet Sematary, based on Stephen King’s novel, continues the motif. In the movie pets (and people) come back to life, turned to evil when buried in a strange graveyard. “The moral of the story,” PJ reasons, “is that you can technically bring things back but it’s a lot of trouble and at the end of the day you will probably wish you hadn’t.” And that’s what is happening in the lives of the Barnes’s: their financial security has formerly protected them from the buried past: the real reasons; what really happened; and characters’ true natures, long suppressed to effect the guise of perfect middle-class normality.
The novel thereby questions the notion of a stable identity over time: whether it is the nature of sexuality, their motives or how they are judged by others. PJ, who is wont to quote scientific facts whenever anyone will listen, tells Cass that our bodies are comprised of so many non-human cells – enough bacteria to fill a two-litre bottle: “ten times more not-human cells than human cells.” The idea of a unified self is thereby suspect, but PJ feels comforted by the idea rather than horrified: “It kind of takes the pressure off . . . I feel like if people knew they were mostly bacteria it would solve a lot of problems.” Characters in this novel struggle with a notion of their essential natures. Imelda has been raised to believe there is something intrinsically evil about herself – “. . . something bad inside her Something that made people want to do bad things” – which only complicates her struggle to understand herself. She is a conflicted character who loved one man and then married his brother, who now is tempted by infidelity while accepting her friends’ criticisms of the very man she is secretly attracted to. For her part, Cass struggles with her growing feelings towards Elaine, and Dickie must contend with the man he wishes to be for his family against the interests and desires he truly feels. But attendant to this is the question of whether we can truly escape our pasts in order to take control of our futures. The central question of the novel, of why Dickie and Imelda married and the impact this has had on everybody’s lives, addresses the key problem of how to face ourselves and the people we wish to be. Essentially, our former selves are ghosts, too:
The moment passes but you stay in the shape you were then In the life that’s come out of the things that you did The remainder of that girl you used to be that’s gone
Consequences are also ghosts, and they are the hauntings of decisions made by our former selves. How to break free of the past, and whether it is authentic to reshape ourselves are questions the actions of Murray’s characters raise.
But Murray’s canvas is larger than his domestic drama suggests. Larger issues emerge from the backdrop as the novel progresses. Imelda wonders early in the novel whether a school assignment Willie has helped Cass complete on climate change has had an impact on his desire to sell cars, which are bad for the environment. The town is flooded in a deluge. And PJ’s obsession with Pet Sematary is also linked to the issue of our dependence on oil: all those creatures turned to sludge millions of years ago and then brought back to the surface to ruin the world.
This is the province of writers like Richard Powers, although I think Paul Murray’s treatment of environmental issues in The Bee Sting is more successfully integrated within the story. In a previous review I wrote of Powers that, “his writing is often imbued with a zealotry which can feel didactic, even preachy.” Murray’s backdrop is climate change, but until late into the novel you may not even realise its presence. Instead, it is used as a wonderful pathetic fallacy for the travails of the Barnes family. The Barnes family is humanity writ large. Its inability to address its issues threaten the family’s future.
A minor character, Willie, once a brilliant debater at Trinity College, returns to the college to deliver a lecture on climate change when Cass and Elaine are students there. Cass attends. However, Willie not only addresses climate change but talks about his own homosexuality, to the consternation of some students. Willie associates the idea of addressing climate change to identity: that to effect any large change we must be willing to change too. This is linked to consumerism and its impact upon the environment, and the way that that capitalism encourages us to define ourselves by consumption; that our notions of self are intrinsically connected to possessions. “So we seem to be faced with an impossible dilemma,” he states. “If we don’t want to be killed by climate change, we have to stop being ourselves.” Willie’s lecture is the most overt expression of this topic in the novel:
The science is not ambiguous. If we don’t face up to reality, we’re not going to make it. And to face up to reality we first need to set aside all of these inventions and disguises we’ve been so busy accumulating. We need to take off our masks.
Murray never allows the reader to lose sight of the fact that just as individual actions can complicate and ruin individual lives, it is our collective actions which have broader social and environmental impacts that our societies, and our species, must face. As the story progresses, the seemingly disparate problems and story lines of each of the characters converge towards a climactic scene that draws upon the climate crisis, itself, as pathetic fallacy. Murray’s story is not only of a family in crisis, but the danger humanity faces due to its collective actions. It seems remarkable as you finish the final line of the book that Murray could have combined these ideas so seamlessly and entertainingly. That he can have his reader as emotionally invested in the fate of a squirrel as in the fate of a family. The ending is devastating. This book is truly ingenious and enthralling.
In the next town over, a man had killed his family. He’d nailed the doors shut so they couldn’t get out; the neighbours heard them running through the rooms, screaming for mercy. When he had finished he turned the gun on himself.
Everyone was talking about it – about what kind of man could do such a thing, about the secrets he must have had. Rumours swirled about affairs, addiction, hidden files on his computer.
Elaine just said she was surprised it didn’t happen more often. She thrust her thumbs through the belt loops of her jeans and looked down the dreary main street of their town. I mean, she said, it’s something to do.