‘Must read’ book: The Bee Sting – Paul Murray
Two decades ago, the Irish writer Paul Murray started his career by publishing An Evening of Long Goodbyes, a book that has remained one of this century’s greatest comedies. With this month’s publication of The Bee Sting, Murray has written a book that could remain one of its greatest novels.
He was hardly sitting still between these two triumphs. In 2010, Skippy Dies was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and in 2016, The Mark and the Void was joint winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, an award for comic literature
The Bee Sting, a 650-page epic longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize, will reinforce Murray’s already high standing. Another changeup, it’s a triumph of realist fiction, a big, sprawling, social novel in the vein of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. The agility with which Murray structures the narrative around the family at its heart is virtuosic and sure-footed, evidence of a writer at the height of his power deftly shifting perspectives, style and syntax to maximise emotional impact. Hilarious and sardonic, heartbreaking and beautiful – there’s just no other way to put it: The Bee Sting is a masterpiece
The novel is a layered tragicomedy, but as the layers get peeled (and they do to reveal in the concluding pages revelation after revelation after revelation), Murray exposes the explosives that lie hidden in the suburban malaise. In Skippy Dies, Murray did the outrageous and the unthinkable: He killed off his protagonist in the prologue and then kept the reader hooked for the next 650 pages. Similarly, in The Bee Sting, he offers a clue to the many secrets that will unfold as the plot develops. Then he spends 643 pages voluptuously unearthing them. And the reader discovers that the bee sting is just one of the dozens of deceptions along the way
It may be impossible to recount the intricate plot without a litany of spoiler alerts, but the unadorned story goes something like this: the Barnes family comprises Dickie, the ineffectual father, whose car dealership is on the brink of collapse; Imelda, the glamorous mother, who resents Dickie for not doing enough to save the business; Cass, the daughter, just graduated from high school and hoping to embark to Trinity College in Dublin with her best friend; and young PJ, tragically afraid of getting in anyone’s way, even if it means cramming his sprouting feet into ill-fitting shoes until they blister. Murray careens each character through their own lengthy section of the novel, giving the reader deep familiarity with their viewpoints, and concludes with a final symphony of the four alternating narratives
At first, the reader is convinced that the crash of the economy is at the heart of all of the family’s problems—the unravelling of Dickie’s car dealership, his daughter’s sense of angry privilege, his wife’s spiritual hollowness, his son’s stumbling confusion. Slowly, the reader starts seeing the truth lurking in the shadows. Both Dickie and Imelda have hidden narratives that shine a light on the present story and their children’s. Like many other characters in the novel – Frank (Dickie’s athletic universally loved younger brother) or Big Mike (a local entrepreneur) – they all struggle to hide or reveal their true identities. For the reader, the whole narrative becomes a cat-and-mouse game between appearance and reality. Imelda, the reader eventually learns, is not the “untouched beauty like a princess in a fairy tale,” combing “her golden hair” and dreaming “of the day that her prince would one day come for her.” Dickie may not be the uncomplicated, devoted husband living the myth of Oisin in the Land of Youth
The title sets the tone before the reader knows how to separate false chords from genuine ones in the novel. Cass may not be the shallow Irish valley girl she at first appears to be. PJ may see more than he seems to at first. The economy may not be the catalyst for the characters’ problems. The source of all the difficulty may be self-deceit
The novel twists and turns in intricate gyres, shifting points of view, from Dickie’s to Imelda’s to Cass’s and others, stripping away one falsity after another. Murray assembles these overlapping parts with complete mastery, crafting a multi-pronged, pitchfork-like structure that can penetrate the ground more effectively than a single prong. Accidents become intentional brutal acts, villains like Imelda’s father, Paddy Joe, “like something from a fairy tale, the terrifying giant with a ravishing daughter, his monstrousness in direct proportion to her beauty,” may have an unseen story of his own. Like the story of the bee sting, there may be another tale behind the veil
Murray is talented enough to pull off just about any effect in a long narrative, but some readers might reasonably wonder why the sections from Imelda’s point of view book omit all punctuation except question marks. Is it some kind of a cute allusion to Molly Bloom? Murray is a writer of sinewy, straightforward sentences; the lack of punctuation does not seem in those sections to serve any purpose than making them harder to read. Other readers might feel that the propulsive drive forward in the plot, especially at the end, although invariably engaging, feels soap-opera-ish. The book races, as much as a writer can race across the landscape of nearly 650 pages, to an adrenaline-fueled conclusion chock full of blackmail, theft, infidelities, murders, paedophiles . . ..
“How can a drought cause a flood?” PJ asks his father at one point. “How can everything that happens just make something worse happen?” There is no answer to this, of course, but The Bee Sting, a questing and humane work of art, gets as close to one as we’re likely to get