The Bee Sting: A Novel
Readers and critics alike know that Paul Murray is a natural storyteller. Anyone held captive by his 2010 novel, the 660-page tour de force Skippy Dies, knows he can create a plot that is addictively readable, characters that are wry and poignant and scary, and landscapes that seem at once familiar and disorienting.
In certain important respects, The Bee Sting will remind readers of Skippy Dies. Like Skippy Dies, The Bee Sting is always compelling, the kind of novel that is so skillful it can become an obstacle to sleep. Murray’s new novel offers a range of fascinating characters, from unsatisfied middle-aged housewives and complicated husbands to depressed university students and confused pre-adolescent boys.
The Bee Sting is a layered tragicomedy, but as the layers get peeled (and they do to reveal in the concluding pages revelation after revelation after revelation), Murray exposes the explosives that lay hidden in the suburban malaise. In Skippy Dies, Murray did the outrageous and the unthinkable: He killed off his protagonist in the prologue and then kept the reader hooked for the next 650 pages. Similarly, in The Bee Sting, he offers a clue to the many secrets that will unfold as the plot develops. Then he spends 643 pages voluptuously unearthing them. And the reader discovers that the bee sting is just one of the dozens of deceptions along the way.
It may be impossible to recount the intricate plot of The Bee Sting without a litany of spoiler alerts, but the unadorned story goes something like this: The Barnes’ family—Dickie and Imelda (successful car dealership owner and his gorgeous wife) along with their apparently shallow and always angry teenage daughter, Cassie, and their sweet and nerdy 12-year-old son PJ—live the life of the privileged class in a village outside of Dublin around the time the Irish economy went from a roaring Celtic Tiger to a mewling alley cat.
At first, the reader is convinced that the crash of the economy is at the heart of all of the family’s problems—the unraveling of Dickie’s car dealership, his daughter’s sense of angry privilege, his wife’s spiritual hollowness, his son’s stumbling confusion. Slowly, the reader starts seeing the truth lurking in the shadows. Both Dickie and Imelda have hidden narratives that shine a light on the present story and their children’s. Like many other characters in the novel—Frank (Dickie’s athletic universally loved younger brother) or Big Mike (a local entrepreneur)—they all struggle to hide or reveal their true identities. For the reader, the whole narrative becomes a cat-and-mouse game between appearance and reality. Imelda, the reader eventually learns, is not the “untouched beauty like a princess in a fairy tale,” combing “her golden hair” and dreaming “of the day that her prince would one day come for her.” Dickie may not be the uncomplicated, devoted husband living the myth of Oisin in the Land of Youth.
The title “The Bee Sting” sets the tone before the reader knows how to separate false chords from genuine ones in the novel. Cass may not be the shallow Irish valley girl she at first appears to be. PJ may see more than he seems to at first. The economy may not be the catalyst for the characters’ problems. The source of all the difficulty may be self-deceit.
The novel twists and turns in intricate gyres, shifting points of view, from Dickie’s to Imelda’s to Cass’s and others, stripping away one falsity after another. Accidents become intentional brutal acts, villains like Imelda’s father, Paddy Joe, “like something from a fairy tale, the terrifying giant with a ravishing daughter, his monstrousness in direct proportion to her beauty,” may have an unseen story of his own. Like the story of the bee sting, there may be another tale behind the veil.
Murray is talented enough to pull off just about any effect in a long narrative, but some readers might reasonably wonder why the sections from Imelda’s point of view book omit all punctuation except question marks. Is it some kind of a cute allusion to Molly Bloom? Murray is a writer of sinewy, straightforward sentences; the lack of punctuation does not seem in those sections to serve any purpose than making them harder to read. Other readers might feel that the propulsive drive forward in the plot, especially at the end, although invariably engaging, feels soap-opera-ish. The book races, as much as a writer can race across the landscape of nearly 650 pages, to an adrenaline-fueled conclusion chock full of blackmail, theft, infidelities, murders, pedophiles . . ..
Randall Jarrell might have been thinking of a wonderfully flawed book like The Bee Sting when he defined the novel as “a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” The Bee Sting might not be perfect, but it’s great fun to read. And perfection is overrated.