From the outside the Barneses are a stereotypical Irish family. The father, Dickie, runs a car dealership and garage he took over from his father. The mother, Imelda, is a housewife still beautiful enough that strangers ask her if she’s a model. Daughter Cass is a bright student destined for university life in Dublin, while son PJ is a curious and rambunctious little boy. But, in parallel with the crashing economy, the Barneses are falling apart. Sales are down at the dealership, a problem exacerbated by Dickie’s growing disinterest in the business and his preoccupation with climate change and the possible end of the world. Imelda, who grew up poor in a hideously dysfunctional family, is determined not to go back there, selling off her fancy clothes and jewelry online. Cass is harboring a secret which she feels might destroy her closest friendship, and PJ is internalizing all the tension in the house and blaming himself for all of it.
Paul Murray is mostly known for comic novels. I greatly enjoyed his novels Skippy Dies and The Mark and the Void. Here he is taking a much more serious tone. While the fear of climate change is introduced into the plot to explain Dickie’s distance from his wife and children, it’s clearly something that has been on the author’s mind as well. A “once-in-a-century” flood is a major plot point in the novel, and though Dickie’s response is the most extreme, other characters large and small find themselves thinking about the issue frequently. Whether or not Murray himself feels as doom and gloom about the climate as Dickie does is still up for debate after the end of the novel.
More centrally, however, The Bee Sting is really about human beings. By alternating perspectives, Murray is able to take us inside the minds of each member of the Barnes family. When we’re with Cass, for instance, we totally empathize with her and understand her actions, even when she is screwing up and hurting others. But when we go to PJ’s point of view, or Imelda’s, or Dickie’s, suddenly Cass is a lot harder to understand. Her behavior becomes obnoxious and selfish, sometimes extremely so. The same is largely true for all the Barneses. Imelda seems like an awful mother until you learn more about the horrific upbringing she’s hidden from her kids.
Murray clearly is trying to test the reader’s sense of empathy, to show us that people’s actions are really only understandable in the full context of their lives, which no one else can know. It’s a cliche, but true: everyone you meet is fighting their own private battle.
Still, Dickie Barnes is a challenge for the reader. Dickie is harboring the most secrets of any character, and the biggest. While these secrets make it easier to explain his actions, they don’t serve to make them forgivable. Even the most empathetic readers will find themselves frustrated at his passivity, duplicity, and stubbornness. Our knowledge of the inner lives of the other characters makes it easy to see what he can’t: that if he came clean he might find more understanding than he thinks.
Murray takes a really big swing near the end of this very long book. In classic early-Seinfeld fashion, he spends a large amount of time engineering the plot to get most of his characters (the four Barneses and some additioal personnel) in the same place at the same time. It’s a long, drawn-out sequence that is tense, confusing, and somewhat frustrating. I imagine the ending will be a major talking point in book club meetings for a long time to come. I’ve had a whole day to process it and I’m still not certain how I feel about certain decisions Murray made.
But either way, The Bee Sting is a major effort. It’s a serious book that will prompt the reader to think, not just about issues, but about life.