The Bee Sting by Paul Murray: book review

The Bee Sting by Paul Murray

Overview: The Barnes family is full of secrets. It might not seem that way on the surface as they appear to be a quintessential, small town, Irish family – husband, wife, daughter, son. But that sheen of normality is challenged as the 2008 recession settles in for the long haul and the family business's downturn brings to life issues that had long been stuffed down. With every family member not quite trusting the others, there is an intense web to unravel to reunite the Barnes family again. Overall: 4

Characters: 4 This is a multi-POV book, so you get to know each family member quite well. There's a slow drip of their complexity as the book opens with each of the children narrating a large chunk. You get to know them and the rules of the town and the realities of their parents through their eyes. It's interesting to start with the stories of the past that were sanitized and filtered down to them and then slowly, through the rest of the book, find out the truth behind the much evolved stories that are a part of the kid's mythology. 

Cass starts the book at the end of her high school career. Everything begins to unravel for her as her best friend drags her into the party scene right before her leaving exams. Cass's life turns upside down, and she finds alcohol to be a fine coping mechanism for the constant tension between her parents. She is largely written as a pretty typical teen – self absorbed, dark, moody, uninterested in family. I wish we'd gotten to go a bit further past the surface with Cass, though she does start to come around in the final pages. 

PJ is her younger sibling, old enough to be interesting and have certain shreds of autonomy but still young enough to bring a needed naivety to how he experiences the world. Much of the early time spent with PJ is focused on violent video games. But his sensitive soul and childlike worries add an interesting perspective as he sets out to save his family. There's also a thought provoking thread about the people you meet on the internet and how trustworthy you can find them that weaves through the novel. 

Imelda is the mother and is deeply dissatisfied with how her life turned out. Though she's painted simply as a gold digger, there's so much more to her story. Her background is explored in great detail in her chapters and sheds light on her and Dickie's marriage that proves to be a fascinating onion. 

Dickie has the biggest secret of any of them, and it takes quite a while to start to crack it. He appears to be an engaged father who gets caught up in financial troubles that thrust him into a midlife crisis. When the big reveal as to what Dickie's been keeping close to his chest all these years finally come to life, many of the big questions in the book click into place. 

There's no shortage of complexity in this cast, even as it focuses on a singular family. 

Plot: 4 Some sections of this book are so incredibly engaging that I couldn't imagine putting the book down. Each time you melted into one of these sections, a big reveal of a looming question, the book was fantastic. Everything becomes so vivid and real and pressing. And then there are a lot of sections where you wonder what the point is as it rambles along in a somewhat relevant but largely unrewarding fashion. I feel like this could've been an incredible book if it was delivered in a more condensed manner, but as I'll address in a second, the prevailing attitude of this book is the author doing exactly as he pleases regardless of what the ultimate reading experience might be, so I understand the lulls between these peaks. There's a reason that some days I read 20 pages and others I read 140 pages. It's not that any of these sections are too dull, but there are many chunks that don't feel like they're going anywhere and don't have an emotional resonance or lyrical quality to propel the book forward on its own.

Writing: 4 This wasn't a book that blew me away on a sentence level, honestly. It's an engaging story from the arial view, and the details come together in shocking ways, but I never quite fell in love with the writing. Fair warning to those who require quotation marks, you won't find them here. I've largely gotten past having an issue with that, but when I got to Imelda's section and discovered that for some reason (perhaps to really drive home that she's uneducated and struggles with writing?) there is absolutely no punctuation at all save for the random ? and ! that appeared at no regular interval. There were plenty of questions where no question mark was added. It doesn't make sense to do this because of Imelda's background as the book is written in third and second person, so the reader wouldn't be under the impression she was writing these chapters herself.

This was too much for me, and it frequently made it difficult to read where I didn't assume the period in the right place (this was particularly hard to do when the end of a sentence had a name so there were two capitalized words against one another). There's clearly an effort to make an artistic statement, but it just didn't work for me. In the final segment, there's also almost a play-like style because the writer wants to shift so rapidly between POVs. This was just another anomaly. 

My other real bone to pick with this novel's text is that, inexplicably, in the back third of the book the story is suddenly told from second person instead of third. It made me question everything I'd read before and was quite jarring. I truly don't understand the shift into telling the story in second person. That choice made me enjoy the book less, honestly, and I still can't think of a reason for the sudden, uncalled for shift. Second person is hard to pull off, and I can't say that The Bee Sting landed it for me. 

I enjoyed the broad overview of the story and the many dramatic moments and twists and turns and layers of reveals, but I struggled with the choices made to convey it. Clearly, from all the love the book is getting, though, these quirks must not have deterred other readers. I'm all for experimenting with form and language. Many of these stranger choices, though, just felt like a lack of editing.

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