Books

The Bee Sting: A Terrific Tragicomedy

Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting is a tender and extravagant sketch of apocalypse

Photo: Getty Images
The silhouette of a teenage boy sitting and praying at the end of a tunnel with a bright light at the end Photo: Getty Images
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In a rare moment of normalcy, the Barnes family of The Bee Sting sits on the sunlit terrace of a local restaurant, Genevieve’s, celebrating the Leaving Certificate exam results of their daughter Cassandra (Cass). She has passed, in spite of her alcoholic befuddlements and dingy trysts with strange boys in the weeks before the exams.

Soon, very soon, she will leave this small, overfamiliar town for Trinity College Dublin, with her best friend, Elaine. But for the wingspan of a moment, her father Dickie can’t stop telling everyone in the vicinity about her results, and her mother Imelda “feels a kind of worn happiness like they are normal”.

Happiness, however threadbare, is what the Barneses seek in their own curious ways, although they aren’t aware of this pursuit. Ostensibly, each of them is looking for ways to escape immediate circumstances. Paul Murray’s protagonists—Cass, her twelve-year-old brother PJ, their parents Dickie and Imelda—are unhinged by financial troubles, the ghosts of the past, a small-town’s relentless gaze, precarious weather, hormones.

The Bee Sting | Paul Murray | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | Rs 1,784 | 656 Pages
The Bee Sting | Paul Murray | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | Rs 1,784 | 656 Pages
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Their perplexities are documented in sections that belong to each character. Cass’ section, titled ‘Sylvias’, is suffused with agonising thrills, confounding teenage urges, and an overwhelming desire to get away from a town full of provincials. A new teacher, Miss Grehan, who appears in her classroom one day, introduces the students to ‘lady poets’, who “…had glamorous, impassioned lives, or torturous, wretched lives. Sometimes they had both.” Cass and Elaine are enthralled by Miss Grehan, who is a lady poet herself, and has lived in Paris and London. She awakens in them a desire to move to a big city and become chic, cosmopolitan versions of themselves.

The Bee Sting, shortlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize, is about an Irish family swept away in the rush and swell of circumstances.

PJ has his own set of anxieties flecked with real worldly trouble. Addicted to online gaming, he is also acutely aware that his dad’s car dealership and garage franchises are floundering. He hasn’t told his family that he needs a new pair of runners, even though his feet are blistered and bleed incessantly. He worries that he will be sent to boarding school, and recalls a happier time, when his parents weren’t constantly fighting: “Remember when Dad used to be fun? Remember when he’d spend the whole evening chasing us around the garden?”

While the early chapters have a raw, frolicsome, easily upset and often-horrified tonal quality, The Bee Sting ripens as the novel progresses into Imelda’s story. This section, titled ‘The Widow Bride’, is narrated in third-person sentences without full stops. The contents of Imelda’s mind spill out, reconstructing her violent past, a brief but all-consuming love affair that ends in tragedy, and her subsequent marriage to Dickie. These sentences quiver and rage; they also observe with remarkable calm the horrors of Imelda’s situation. When a group of men break into her house and attempt to ravage her, Imelda “…breathed through her nose trying to tamp down the fear for she knew it would only get him going but she couldn’t stop it. The fear Flaring off her like the steam from a horse on a cold morning and it did she was right it did get him going got all of them going.”

The throbbing pulse of Imelda’s interiority evokes other fictional heroines. She could be Clarissa Dalloway or even Jane Eyre, with their whirring minds and gleaming filaments of thoughts, moods, utterances.

Dickie, on the other hand, is measured, somewhat erudite, repressed. His section oscillates from flashbacks of his time at Trinity College to the present, where he is constructing a bunker in the woods. Like Imelda, Dickie, too, recalls a moment of happiness—a weekend during his third year at university, when “It was autumn, but it felt like spring. And he, too, found himself feeling an odd and uncharacteristic vitality, a sort of mischievous happiness.”

Trinity College appears through a haze of longing—the Front Square where the debating, kayaking, history, philosophy and other societies set up their stalls during Freshers Week, the bell tower called The Campanile across the cobblestones, The Rubrics or student apartments in a red building. Dickie’s narrative exudes a bittersweetness—the past is a forfeited promise, the present is a forest that may contain ghosts and other terrors, where the light is uncertain and ‘…through the trees the darkness seethes, in and out, like the breathing of some vast edgeless beast stealing even nearer…’

The Bee Sting, shortlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize, is about an Irish family swept away in the rush and swell of circumstances, mirrored by the flood that engulfs the town. Murray is a connoisseur of feelings of claustrophobia and tiny entanglements that lead to unhappy destinies. But amidst the discordant twangs of unlived lives, there are unlikely friendships, irrepressible loves, and ethereal moments of discovery, for instance, tattoos on a sculpted forearm, their details revealed by cigarette light.

The landscape is soggy, mildewed, and on the verge of ruin, but there are characters who lend it an unexpected verve. There are women who appear briefly, flitting through the pages and electrifying its protagonists. Miss Grehan, for instance, with her splendid red hair and white trouser suit, is a bolt of sophistication in a parochial classroom. And then there’s Rose, wise, inscrutable Rose, who knows the myths of the land and can read tea leaves. Rose, who sees mist in the leaves, and a ghost at a wedding, and knows that misfortune is imminent.

The Bee Sting ticks to the rhythm of all that is imminent.

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Radhika Oberoi is the author of Stillborn Season and (Forthcoming) Of Mothers And Other Perishables.

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