Review: The Bee Sting (2023) by Paul Murray

An ambitious, stunning contemporary novel that investigates the idea of the pernicious effect of denial and secrets within the one’s own family.

Published by Hamish Hamilton

656 Pages. Full Length Novel

'The Bee Sting' cover design. Featuring a yellow colourway, with significant typography for both the name of the author and title of the novel. Graphic of a yellow bee in the top right corner, with a 'subway' like line running all the way through the entire design. 'The Booker Prize 2023' longlist emblem in top left corner.
‘The Bee Sting’ Cover Design. Image: GoodReads

“Are we bad people? Did I do the wrong thing? What will become of us?”

How well do we truly know our own families? What secrets might we be keeping from one another? In what might be one of the most engaging, darkly funny, yet completely heartbreaking dramas that I have read this year, these questions as well as the above quote are pulled apart, dissected, and re-examined within the course of the novel’s 600+ page length.

Murray has a lot on his mind with The Bee Sting (2023). Shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, this tragicomedy, which doubles as a family saga, examines a multitude of thematic bearings, and does so with a focus on the Barnes family, our four main perspectives.

Set in a small town in Ireland, amidst the financial crisis of the mid-2010s, the Barnes family is shit-out-of-luck. The family business, a franchise of multiple car dealerships, has gone bust, with all but one sole garage having shuttered their doors. The townspeople are gossiping, distancing themselves from the family that was once seen as the pinnacle, the foundation, of the community.

However, amidst all this external turmoil, of their world seemingly coming to a slow and painful end, their fall from grace, a lot more is happening beneath the surface. Behind closed doors. This is where the majority of The Bee Sting executes its raison d’être; this idea of ‘closed doors’ offering pretenses of safety, stability. It’s an incredibly thought provoking, yet entirely effective framework to tell the story of the unravelling of our four family members. But more than anything, this is not your typical ‘rich family turned poor’ story. Murray goes beyond this one trope to paint a tapestry of intricately laid out expectations that he, in turn, subverts one after another.

There is Cassandra, ‘Cass’, who is in her final year of high school and just about to sit her leaving certificate exams (a requirement for all students in Ireland, in order to graduate high school and apply for University). Her’s is a story with all the seemingly familiar trappings of teenage angst; pre-alcoholic levels of drinking, horny teenagers, unrequited love, skipping class, pondering the shape of her life post-high school, and doing just about anything other than studying for the most important tests in her academic career.

Twelve-year-old PJ, is both blissfully naïve and considerably out-of-his-depth, a juxtaposition that proves to be incredibly comedic. Given the circumstances of his family’s rapidly dwindling wealth, much of the activities he is used to such as exotic vacations to Egypt or expensive summer camps, are no longer a consideration. Those are all luxuries that his family cannot afford. His family’s fall from grace has even gone so far as to affect the state of his social life: many of his friends, who are the children of other influential and or wealthy families within the community, are discouraged from any proximity to the Barneses, making it clear of their newly bestowed upon social pariah designation. So then, PJ has relegated his days to playing video games (which he must work to sell off, now that asking his parents for money is out of the question), pestering his family with randomly spouted facts about insects and human anatomy, and spying on his neighbours engaging in sexual intercourse.

Imelda, a legendary beauty (this is a fact well known among members of this small town) and the family’s matriarch, is no longer in love with her husband. As with her daughter Cass, she blames the family’s financial (and social) losses entirely on Dickie, and his fervent lack of communication on matters that affect the entire family. She has never been involved in the business dealings with the dealership, and fears that not even selling off her high fashion house couture and jewellery may salvage the precarious state she and her family find themselves in.

Dickie is the epitome of the stoic, emotionally (at least, on the surface) bankrupt father-type. His kids, specifically his eldest daughter, continuously spew vitriol his way, because, of course, it’s all his fault. Things between his wife and himself have corroded, but, have they always been this way? He instead finds himself out in the woods most days, working alongside a colleague to restore a shed into a doomsday-style shelter, if he is not dealing with the mess that has become the financially-bleeding dealership.

Amidst explorations of infidelity, fatherhood, external and internal homophobia, divergent paths (ie. what if I had done this? Made this choice? Gone this route?), it is perhaps the catastrophic effect of secrets and the tendency for these things to build on top of each other, that feels the most powerful and resonant with The Bee Sting. Indeed, the title itself is a lie, in a novel that is without a doubt full of them. Each member of the Barnes family not only lie to each other, but to themselves. Its accumulative effect, seen in the finale of this 600-page saga, is devastating, thought-provoking, entirely galvanizing, and will have you thinking about these characters long after that last page is turned.

And what a finale it is. Murray interlaces the interior-worlds of each of our characters (the novel only takes place over a relatively short period of time), leading to a payoff that will have readers guessing and debating among each other. If Murray succeeds in getting you on board with the plight of these four family members, of caring about the trajectory of the collision course seemingly set off even before the beginning of the novel, that last chapter is perhaps his pièce de resistance of this masterfully woven story. You heart will break, and an inexplicable urge to talk to your own family may emerge.

And what is fiction, if not a call to reflect, pressingly, on one’s own life? The Bee Sting is a combination of the best inclinations of literary fiction, the accessibility of comedy, sharp yet incredibly witty writing, and insight into the contradictions of the family unit. It is without a doubt one of the best contemporary novels that I have ever picked up on the topic of family this year, and essential reading for lovers of darkly-comedic, highly-stylized, and undeniably original fiction.

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