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Man Booker Prize-shortlist The Bee Sting by Paul Murray is an immersive story of a family’s unravelling

As cash crunch and economic failures loom large, a family of four deals with the slippery slope of general downfall in Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting.

Man Booker Prize-shortlist The Bee Sting by Paul Murray is an immersive story of a family’s unravelling

Friday October 06, 2023 , 4 min Read

Irish literature has been a staple for readers who seek truth to emerge on the written word (think Roddy Doyl’s novels). Carrying forward this legacy and his reputation as one of the best socio-comic writers of our time, Paul Murray’s novel The Bee Sting has been shortlisted to the Man Booker Prize 2023.

Hilarious in parts and sometimes satirical, this novel is a blow by blow narrative of a family’s tragic denial and unravelling. An Irish family of four that deals with a long-drawn-out economic crash and its consequences on their small town, this book is a voluminous tragic comedy written out like a gripping drama. Its context as well as characters are relevant to families everywhere, for economic uncertainty has become a staple of the postmodern world. 

The Barneses live in an Irish town where people slowed down their cars to see who you were so that they could wave at you, in soft pedalled middle-class comfort. 

The economy is stagnant and there’s literally nothing worthwhile to do for their teenage daughter, Cass, beyond anxiously nurturing a friendship with the toxic pretty girl in school, Elaine.

The families of both girls can afford decent lifestyles. But a financial crisis in the Barnes household triggers a downfall for them, highlighting the way peer pressure can affect people’s relationships and social standing.

Cass’s mother, Imelda, is the local beauty, and can make heads turn by her presence. Imelda seems to have a vicarious shopping-and-style driven relationship with Elaine beyond her volatile equation with her own daughter, Cass. 

The son, 12-year-old PJ, is coming of age with the confusion and scarring of a pre-teen in today’s chaotic world–computer games, porn, nature trivia, and frightening facts–while suppressing his pain that is literally cutting through him. 

As both kids deal with teenage and growing up angst, making a couple of terrible choices, the chasm in their lives keeps growing as a cash crunch from their father’s family business squeezes their home. 

While an exploration of the challenges of growing up in a hyper consumerist age kicks off this story, there is a much deeper and complex layer of their parents’ early lives. Imelda comes across as an opportunist, a self-centred narcissist, and a gold digger at times; only to lead on to her difficult childhood. As her life is recalled in the stream-of-consciousness writing, its breathless quality is effective in getting through the fact that she escaped a hellish life when she married Dickie Barnes. 

Despite a tragedy that she suffered in love, and an ill-timed bee sting, Imelda’s story makes the reader empathise with her dubious and impulsive decisions too. 

When the story moves to Dickie, the father and provider, Murray’s ability to parse through the outer layers to delve into the soul of his characters shines through. Having had to hide his true self in standard social conditioning and family norm, his escapism from reality gradually begins to make sense. 

The book carries forward the theme of anxiety–Imelda’s shopping and decor anxiety, Cass’ peer anxiety, PJ’s anxiety about his parents splitting, and Dickie’s masculine anxiety–effectively to position a hard truth of contemporary life. Each of us has a preset role to deal with. Sometimes, not living your true self can lead to disastrous decisions that have a reverberating impact for a long time. 

Murray recreates the charm of his book, Skippy Dies (2010), in bringing out the innermost, intimate, and vulnerable aspects of his characters. Reflecting a miasma of stagnation and staticity that dominates the landscape of a recession that hit the UK, the world of this book feels realistic. 

It is also a reality check of sorts–with illusions of growing up, teenage experiences, and the protection of a family that sour in the story. Without a father’s strength and a mother’s affection, both Cass and PJ navigate social pressures and bullying on their own. 

The book is written with a fast-paced and staccato quality, like a guitar’s discordant strings, to capture the growing chaos in its character’s lives. Anyone who has travelled to Great Britain, particularly Ireland in recent years, will connect with its background of disillusion. 

The Bee Sting at 650 pages is big and splashed with detailing. It is also a long, rapid, and relevant reflection of the ‘out of control’ times that we live in. Beyond the Man Booker list, it’s a highly recommended read. 

Rating: 4/5

Edited by Megha Reddy