A background of drugs, deprivation and under-age sex doesn't always make for a page-turning and ultimately heart-warming novel, but The Death Of Bees is a brilliant exception.
An award-winning screenwriter who now lives in Los Angeles, O'Donnell has returned to her Scottish roots for her print debut, which concerns two sisters, 15-year-old Marnie and 12-year-old Nelly, who live in a housing estate in Glasgow.
Marnie is streetwise but vulnerable, academically clever but headstrong and wayward. Nelly is a bit stranger, having adopted a jolly-hockeysticks way of speaking ("beastly" and "bothersome" are two typical adjectives from her lexicon) completely at odds with her surroundings. Presumably, it's her way of distancing herself from the impoverishment and neglect that she and Marnie have had to endure all these years.
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When their drug-addicted parents die within a day of each other – their father smothered by a cushion, their mother subsequently hanging herself – the girls bury the bodies in the back garden and tell people the unreliable couple have swanned off somewhere and left them to fend for themselves. Their next-door neighbour, Lennie, a gay man of advancing years who is on the sex offenders' register after an unwise incident in a public park, takes pity on the girls and starts to look after them, an arrangement that feels like a family for the first time, for all three of them.
But such an idyll can't last for ever as suspicion about their parents' disappearance is bound to lead to some sort of discovery eventually. What's more, the grandfather they never knew has swooped into the girls' lives, claiming to be a reformed character and attempting to claim them as his own.
Telling the story from the alternating perspectives of Marnie, Nelly and Lennie, O'Donnell easily generates sympathy for her three major characters, for all their flaws, as the weeks turn into months and the prospect of discovery draws ever nearer. With the exception of a development at the very end which strikes one as being rather too convenient, The Death Of Bees is compelling stuff, engaging the emotions from the first page and quickly becoming almost impossible to put down.
THE DEATH OF BEES
Random House, £12.99