A Novel Concept

Paul Murray’s Novel is the Bee’s Knees

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By Michael Malone

The Bee Sting“The Bee Sting” is a big, big book. It runs for 642 pages, and its set-up is not all that reader-friendly. The first half doesn’t have chapters so much as it has sections, and they go on for 40, 50 or 100 pages.

It takes a very good writer to keep the reader engaged in a book like that, and a very compelling story to boot.

“The Bee Sting” has both. Paul Murray’s novel is about a family of four in small-town Ireland. Father Dickie runs the family business, a car dealership and garage his father launched that made the family wealthy and prominent in town. Imelda is his beautiful wife, and Cass and PJ are the kids, brainy and mostly normal.

But the recession of the aughts has set the business back. Imelda takes to selling much of the stuff – furniture, jewelry – she bought in their wealthy days on eBay. She and Dickie are fighting, and Cass and PJ are anxious.

“The Crisis had transformed Main Street into a mouthful of cavities, businesses big and small shuttered in its aftermath,” Murray writes. “Yet the collapse of the garage was felt by the townsfolk to be of a different order. A fall as dizzying as the Barnes’s couldn’t come from simple economics. There had to be a moral element.”

Each family member gets their own sections. The book starts with Cass, finishing school alongside her best friend Elaine. Both are smitten when a stylish female poet comes on as a substitute teacher at their school. Cass is super smart, but alcohol is playing an increasing role in her free time.

Then it’s on to PJ, who loves video games, is dealing with a scary bully with the nickname Ears and has a friendly online pal in Dublin that we don’t know a whole lot about, other than he really wants PJ to visit.

In Imelda’s sections, which feature zero punctuation, we learn of her father – a roughneck who is, at times, charming, and other times abusive.

Then we move on to Dickie, and his time at Trinity College a few decades before, exploring pursuits that the folks back in the country can never know about.

Over time, the full story of the Barnes family comes out. Imelda was engaged to Dickie’s brother, a star Gaelic football player and a charmer. After he died an untimely death, a disconsolate Imelda moved in with the grieving Barnes family, and got close to nerdy Dickie.

They end up marrying. The novel’s title refers to a sting Imelda sustains en route to the wedding.

As Cass goes off to college in Dublin, the family is struggling. Dickie’s father comes back from retirement in Portugal to look into how the business has fallen apart, and spies a glaring hole in the accounting books. He taps Big Mike, Elaine’s father and a successful farmer in town, to run the dealership, with no discernible role for Dickie. Big Mike’s hiring is awkward for all the Barneses.

And so Dickie immerses himself in a “future-proofing” job out in the woods behind his house. Working with a doomsday prepper pal named Victor, they refurbish a shack that the family can live in should the world around them implode.

Oddball Victor thinks constantly of what to do when the world falls apart, which reminded me of another Irish novel, “Prophet Song,” which details Ireland after a totalitarian government has risen to power.

Dickie has some explaining to do for the missing cash, which involves a blackmail situation he needs to stay under wraps. And so he stays in the woods, and Imelda has a bit of a fling with Big Mike.

The shack in the woods, known as The Bunker, hosts a number of key scenes. Cass goes to drink there with her friends. PJ does what 12-year-olds and their friends do in cabins in the woods. As the novel concludes, all four family members descend on the shack, rain pouring down in the dark, none of them quite sure what they’ll find.

It all makes for a highly entertaining read.

The second half of the book has more traditional chapters. Reading “The Bee Sting” is similar to running a marathon, where the first 13 miles have no cups of water, no bathroom stations, nothing. Just running, and a great view. The second half then has rest stops every couple of miles with maybe a few Power Bars to grab, and still that great view.

Murray has some fun with the rift between rural Ireland and the cosmopolitan types at Trinity in Dublin. There’s a bit of supernatural flair to “The Bee Sting,” with Imelda’s aunt something of a medium, and ghosts popping up here and there. But it’s the tale of the Barnes family that keeps the reader greedily turning pages. They are four characters you won’t soon forget. Like every family, the Barneses have secrets, and the gradual reveals of them are both moving and thrilling.

My one issue is that the ending, with all the main characters heading toward the Bunker, setting the stage for a grand denouement, comes out a bit vague. Murray wraps things up with style, but after such a lengthy read, I would’ve liked a clearer account of precisely what went down in the woods.

“The Bee Sting” has a 4.01 out of 5 on GoodReads, and it deserves better. The New York Times called it one of its top 10 books in 2023, and it was one of six books to be finalists for The Booker Prize, which actually went to “Prophet Song.”

Murray’s other novels include “Skippy Dies” and “The Mark and the Void.”

The Times review reads, “Through the Barneses’ countless personal dramas, Murray explores humanity’s endless contradictions: How brutal and beautiful life is. How broken and also full of potential. How endlessly fraught and persistently promising. Whether or not we can ever truly change our course, the hapless Barneses will keep you hoping, even after you turn the novel’s last page.”

Journalist Michael Malone lives in Hawthorne with his wife and two children. 

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