#SheReviews – The Bee Sting by Paul Murray

June 27, 2024

In life’s seemingly random lottery, some folk appear to be almost giddy with the good fortune bestowed on them. Others appear to perpetually find themselves in a bogged down quagmire of misfortune and mistakes. True happiness and ‘golden days’ just out of reach.

It is in the latter unenviable cohort that the world-weary and down-on-their-luck Barnes family, living in a mundane town in Ireland, find themselves. The Barnes family are the chief protagonists in spectacular Irish author, Paul Murray’s, latest phenomenally well and beautifully written novel, The Bee Sting.

The Barnes family have all seen better days. Although, was life ever really that great for them in the first place? Patriarch, Dickie, runs Maurice Barnes Motors (a car-dealership) in town (not far from Dublin), a position he took over from his father, Maurice. Maurice (fabulously wealthy) is now living the high life in Portugal. The dutiful and longsuffering Dickie has taken over the family business, despite once having had ideas of doing something else with his carefully laid out (by his father) life. Dickie was always being groomed to take over the family business. His younger brother, Frank, was a natural as a salesman in the business back in the day.

It is a business that is now ‘going under’. Up until this point the Barnes family have been dripping in money (“holidays past, in Malaga, in Chamonix, in Disneyland, in Marrakesh, skiing, snorkelling, sunbathing, riding donkeys). Now “the customers had stopped coming” to Maurice Barnes Motors.

Cass (Dickie’s outspoken, stubborn, sensitive and activist teenage daughter in her last year of school) reflects on the family’s altered financial status: “It wasn’t Dad’s fault. There had been a crash….But this crash was slow – in fact it had been going on for years….because of this crash, there was no more money…….Last year the microchip factory had let a hundred people go; half the shops on Main Street had an A4 page in the window, thanking customers for their many years of loyalty………”

Cass is exceedingly bright and has dreams of going to university in Dublin, along with her best friend at school, Elaine, when school finishes. So why are Cass and Elaine going to bars and getting boys and married men to buy them drinks in the lead up to their final exams, when they should be devotedly studying? Despite her frivolities, “Elaine hated their town. Everyone knew everyone, everybody knew your business; when you walked down the street people would slow down their cars to see who you were so they could wave at you. There were no proper shops; instead of McDonald’s and Starbucks, they had Binchy Burgers and Mangan’s Cafe, where the owners worked behind the counter and asked after your parents. You can’t even buy a sausage roll without having to tell someone your life story, she complained……….The smallness wouldn’t have been so bad if the townsfolk had had a little more sophistication. But their only interest, besides farming and the well-being of the microchip factory, was Gaelic games”.

Barnes family matriarch, Imelda, a stunning beauty who spends her time at Tidy Towns Committee meetings in town with her gossiping friends and spending Dickie’s money is aghast at the fact the family business, and thus her and the family’s lavish lifestyle, is ‘on the skids’. Imelda, in a highly agitated and panicked state, begins selling her plethora of luxury possessions on e-bay.

Twelve year old, PJ, a boy who is an endless divulger of scientific facts, desperately wants to help his family, but what can he do? When the town bully, ‘Ears’, demands money from PJ (which PJ doesn’t have), PJ makes plans to run away. He has made a ‘friend’, Ethan, on the internet. He plans to escape the tension in the Barnes household and his inevitable ‘bashing’ by Ears by going to stay with Ethan in Dublin.

Imelda and Dickie’s already strained and distant relationship is massively further eroded by their money worries. Home at Goldenhill (the family’s house’s name) is not a place that is enjoyable for any of the Barnes to be. Anxiety, fear and despondency permeate their very existences. Also dread.

The forthright and stern Imelda demands that Dickie ask Maurice for money. Dickie is reluctant to do so. Will he cave in to Imelda’s demands?

Big Mike, Elaine’s philandering father (married to the undeservingly betrayed Joan) ” had ‘gone in’ with a developer on a small estate of houses carved out of the woods behind Cass’s family’s land. Now the developer had gone bust, and the unfinished houses were mouldering away…………But somehow as well as summer holidays in France, he had taken his family skiing in the autumn midterm break; they still had a standing order of lobster at the delicatessen, and every Sunday at Mass they sat up the very front”.

It is not only business and family life that has Dickie constantly in a ‘cold sweat’. Somebody from his past is blackmailing him for money he doesn’t have.

As the innocuous trickle of troubles in Dickie’s life become a raging and forbidding torrent, he consoles himself by fortifying a Bunker in the woods behind his house, assisted by his friend, Viktor, and PJ.

Dickie and Viktor are convinced that the end of civilisation is coming, and they want to be prepared.

Can the Barnes family ever come out of the dark, dank hole they have found themselves in? Can Dickie get the car business out of the red? Does he even want to?

Can Dickie, Imelda, Cass and PJ combat the sickening dread and sadness in their individual and collective lives?

Can they ever find inner peace?

Who will end up having an affair?

Who is the woman who turns up in town pregnant? Is the baby Big Mike’s?

Why did Frank die? Why did Dickie marry Imelda when she had been engaged to Frank?

Will Imelda ever be able to fully accept that Frank is dead and is not coming back?

Do Cass and Elaine ever get to university in Dublin? Who will pay for Cass’s living expenses if she does go?

The Bee Sting is a novel that overflows with intelligence, wisdom and highly accurate observances of the human psyche and condition. Themes of grief, teenage identity and self-esteem, childhood bullying and family dynamics are expertly examined.

Bravo Paul! It is evident you put your heart and soul into writing The Bee Sting. The result is a sublime (and at times heartbreaking) expose of human nobility, flaws, tragedy and redemption.

The Bee Sting was longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize, a well deserved accolade. If you are looking for a novel that will tear at your heartstrings, fill you with hope and deeply engross you, this is the novel for you.

I loved The Bee Sting (you will have to read it to find out how it got it’s title) and I can’t wait to read whatever Paul writes next.