Reading Paul Murray’s new novel brought to mind Charles Dickens’s quote on the mechanics of good fiction: make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait. Murray is a natural storyteller who knows when to withhold, to indulge, to surprise. He specialises, like Dickens, in lengthy sagas that are mammoth in scope, generous with detail and backstory, flush with humour and colourful characters, all of it steeped in social realism.
In a way, this new book is an amalgamation of the author’s previous work, at least thematically. There’s the deep dive into the dangerous world of teenagers from Skippy Dies, a focus on sibling relationships from An Evening of Long Goodbyes and the backdrop of the crash from The Mark and the Void, but in The Bee Sting Murray moves away from metafictional tricks to consider the human impact of the recession, as personified by the Barnes family, big fish in an unnamed Irish town.
Father-of-two Dickie Barnes owns the local car dealership, a formerly lucrative business bequeathed to him by his overbearing father, Maurice. Once upon a time Dickie was a scholarship student at Trinity College Dublin, his life opening up in front of him with a sense of possibility and hope for the future, the glorious anonymity of a big city offering him the chance of an authentic, rewarding existence. How he ended up back in the town he longed to escape from is a central question of the narrative, which is part a broader question underpinning each of the main characters’ storylines in one guise or another, namely: where did it all go wrong?
There are overtones of Jonathan Franzen’s recent epic Crossroads. Both books revel in messy family dynamics and the intergenerational legacy of secrets and shame
Murray, from Dublin, is best known for his Booker-longlisted second novel, Skippy Dies. Other accolades include joint winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for The Mark and the Void, and shortlistings for the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award for his debut, An Evening of Long Goodbyes. With the multiperspective family saga of The Bee Sting, his first novel since 2015, there are overtones of Jonathan Franzen’s recent epic Crossroads. Both books revel in messy family dynamics and the intergenerational legacy of secrets and shame. They are character-driven novels where various family members come to life through their actions, but also through the lens of those closest to them. Here, for example, is eldest child Cass Barnes, in sixth year in school, on her beautiful, seemingly vacuous mother, Imelda: “To spend time with her mother was to get a running commentary on the contents of her mind – an incessant barrage of thoughts and sub-thoughts and random observations, each in itself insignificant but cumulatively overwhelming.”
Our opinion of Imelda is subsequently upended, however, in a lengthy chapter where the woman’s tragic past is revealed through an impressive, punctuation-free interior monologue that deftly captures the cadences of her voice and her racing, troubled mind. Murray’s nimble shape-shifting makes the reader re-evaluate each of the characters in turn – selfish Cass, strait-laced Dickie, gullible youngest son PJ. The latter’s poignant storyline gives the narrative its tension, inklings of what might be lost if the adults can’t get it together. As Dickie notes, “You couldn’t protect the people you loved – that was the lesson of history, and it struck him therefore that to love someone meant to be opened up to a radically heightened level of suffering.”
Stylistically The Bee Sting is an ambitious, expansive novel. There are shifts in perspective, tone, voice, era and milieu. As might be expected for a book of this length – 650 pages – not everything succeeds. Towards the end it can feel repetitious and occasionally bloated, particularly in Imelda and Dickie’s sections, where the past has already been dealt with so comprehensively. A shift to the second person voice and into the viewpoints of marginal characters doesn’t add much. Time can be hard to pinpoint. Some details feel anachronistic or overdone: a My Little Pony lamp in the bedroom of a cool-girl teen; Imelda’s group of harpy female friends, who provide lowbrow comedy at best; smartphone usage that seems more 2023 than 2013; Imelda, in her mid-30s (according to her daughter’s friend), talks like something out of Synge: “A woman like me twenty years ago she snaps back You may get along now Mike Comerford with your old blather.”
At the same time, this Pegeen Mike sharpness can be very funny, so who cares if it’s somewhat out of whack? For the most part, The Bee Sting is hugely entertaining tragicomic fiction. The children’s voices are exceptionally vivid and entertaining. Elsewhere, Dickie’s survivalist friend, Victor, has some of the best lines: “You think Myanmar and South Sudan weren’t all how-d’ye-do and Tidy Towns before they started hacking each other to pieces?”
The chief success of The Bee Sting is the way it highlights how little control we have over it all
As with the best comic fiction, the darkness is never too far away. Sexual violence, bereavement, homophobia, environmental ruin are just some of the topics broached. Murray gets his ideas in without it seeming like polemic: “The thought of addressing [the climate crisis] actually seems in some ways worse to us than being killed by it. Or put it another way, the thought of no longer being ourselves is harder for us to get our head around than the thought of being dead.”
There is a brutal streak of fatalism running through The Bee Sting, most literally with the character of Rose, Imelda’s gypsy aunt who has visions of death. The outcome may well be preordained, as Murray’s ending underlines, but that doesn’t stop his characters trying their hardest to influence proceedings. One thing is clear: there’s no escaping the past. Shadow selves are a recurring feature, ghosts trying to get out of the box. The chief success of The Bee Sting is the way it highlights how little control we have over it all. The grand narrative of life reduced, or as Imelda puts it in her inimitable way: “In her house there was never a plan No thought for the future Life just came at you like a gang of lads getting out of a van.”