On the longlist of the Booker Prize 2023, The Bee Sting resurrects the purity of joy in good fiction. There is no overt politics, even though there are Bangladeshi immigrants appearing in the very beginning, or any attempt to make sense of the world around either on the part of the author or his characters. By Arrangement
"They were the same: they fit together, like the shrapnel of a car and the ruin of a garage…"
The beauty of Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting is owed to the author’s ability to write lines like this where he’s able to distil the novel’s world in a grain of sand. Funny, dramatic, crammed with themes and setting, and looking both backwards and forward in time.
The Bee Sting is everything that a good work of fiction is supposed to be: Tender, reflective, and, above all, entertaining. Painted on the canvas of the economic crash of 2008, Murray gives us the Barnes family: Dickie and Imelda, their children, Cass and PJ, Dickie’s father, Maurice, and Dickie’s dead brother, Frank.
The Barnes family has its secrets but their present state may or may not have anything to do with those. Therefore, Murray is not in any hurry to reveal them. The letting-in only allows the readers to understand better the characters’ interpersonal dynamics. But how the Barnes interact with each other or with the world outside that is apparently turning against them since Dickie’s inherited car dealership business has taken a hit is less important than how they confer with themselves. Murray’s Barnes universe is largely interiorised though he never lets the external environment or characters out of focus.
Speaking in different voices, The Bee Sting is a Rashomon-like observation of the Barnes family. The world is a chaotic place and economic stresses are the same for everyone but the quality of this chaos is variegated for each member of the family. The personal hell of Cass, the high-schooler, is markedly different from the one that an almost ignored 12-year-old PJ inhabits where she’s the tormentor, not any victim.
In a wickedly funny and cynical vein, Murray reveals his theme in the opening line of the novel. "In the next town over, a man had killed his family." Family, both the Church and the Holy Grail of traditional societies, becomes Murray’s playing ground where he’s able to showcase his deft handling of plot, intensity of character-building, and deployment of language to create a kaleidoscope of different mindscapes.
On the longlist of the Booker Prize 2023, The Bee Sting resurrects the purity of joy in good fiction. There is no overt politics, even though there are Bangladeshi immigrants appearing in the very beginning, or any attempt to "make sense" of the world around either on the part of the author or his characters. That task is rightly left to the reader. Make of the book’s universe what you will, but you cannot escape noticing the acuity with which it has been created. From a philandering businessman to a high-schooler who writes poetry like the following and still second-guesses herself every moment, everyone gets Murray’s piercing glance.
"…And our sleeping bodies, miles apart,
While we press closer, heart to heart.
And closer still, until the dawn
Returns us to our mortal form
And day, and rules — still, in your eye
I see the night dream of our sky."
As you finish the book, you are already asking for more. And that’s a triumph for a novel that already runs into almost 650 pages. You are not willing to let go of Cass, PJ, Dickie, or Imelda. Heck, you want to know everything about Mike, too, even though he’ll be "covered head to toe in cow shite".
Nishtha Gautam is an author, academic and journalist. She’s the co-editor of Hard Times: Security in Times of Insecurity.
The Bee Sting
By Paul Murray
pp. 400, Rs 799
Shortlisted for Booker Prize