Paul Murray cannot write a short book – refuses point blank to do so. The Irish novelist, 47, has written three to date: 2003’s An Evening of Long Goodbyes (448 pages), Skippy Dies in 2010 (672 pages), and 2015’s The Mark and the Void (480 pages). Little wonder there is such a chunk of time between each.
His latest, at 650 pages, plays ably into his habit of coming in hefty. It also furthers his reputation as a writer of tragicomedy without peer.
The Bee Sting tells the story of the Barnes family which, the author relays, “is in trouble”.
Father Dickie’s once-lucrative car business is tanking, but rather than face up to this, he spends much time in the woods with his survivalist pal, building an apocalypse-proof bunker into which he can direct his midlife crisis largely unobserved.
His wife, Imelda, once a beauty in her part of Ireland, is losing her social standing and considering whether to have an affair, and his daughter Cass is becoming less interested in her studies and more intent on partying. Twelve-year-old PJ becomes a target for the school bully and convinces himself that if he runs away, his disappearance will surely bring the family back together. Isn’t that how life works?
Their stories are relayed over successive chapters, often in exquisite detail, and brought to vivid life, each with their own distinctive cadence, along with an amalgam of attendant eccentricities and gripes. “I just want to live somewhere I can get a good coffee, and where everyone doesn’t look like they were made out of mashed potatoes,” one of them laments.
The book moves back and forth in time, in perpetual pursuit of that initial domino that made all the others topple. Could it stretch back to Imelda’s teenage engagement to Dickie’s handsome brother, Frank? Or was it after Dickie found himself drawn more to male company when convention, in small-town Ireland, dictated that female company was the safer bet?
Is it possible, Murray asks, that a single moment of bad luck set in motion everything that follows? And, if so, can the future ever be rescued? The answer, inevitably, is complicated.
Towards the end of the novel, with myriad loose ends, Murray attempts to tie things together in the heightened fashion one might more readily expect of someone who lives in Hollywood and writes for the screen.
If it is a dramatic flourish not quite in keeping with the rest of the book, you go along with it because Murray is that kind of author, as in control of his narrative as he is with its occasional lack of punctuation.
For reasons unclear, Murray relates Imelda’s sections without it, as if she exists only in streams of consciousness: “There [he] was yanking on her arm Eyes wide We’ve got to go he said The security was after him for taking the purse.” A hundred pages of this will ensure you never underestimate a full stop again.
The Bee Sting is both brilliant entertainment and a penetrating look at the human condition, as heavy with pathos as it is rich with humour. And if 650 pages asks a lot of the reader, in this case it more than delivers.