The New Yorker Reviews “The Bee Sting”

“The Bee Sting,” A Family Saga of Desperation and Denial

The protagonists of Paul Murray’s perspective-shifting novel struggle to conceal their unruly attachments beneath a conventional surface.

By Katy Waldman

In “The Bee Sting,” the fourth novel by the Irish author Paul Murray, twelve-year-old PJ Barnes ponders the downsides of resurrection. He recently saw “Pet Sematary,” Stephen King’s horror film about a graveyard that disgorges its occupants and sends them back into the world. “When things come back,” PJ observes, “very often they come back different.” The rule applies to his own father, Dickie Barnes, who has been working long hours on a building project in the woods; business at his auto dealership hasn’t been the same since the 2008 market crash. Dickie returns to the house periodically, but he’s almost unrecognizable, snappish one moment and catatonic the next. A friendly conversation with a local garda leaves him “death-white,” his eyes “wide as plates,” and emitting a noise like “a horrible croaking, or a reverse-croaking,” as if “he’s trying to suck in breath but he can’t.”

The novel is about things coming back different, coming back weird. Its more than six hundred pages explore the eeriness of transformative change, and they are packed with literal and symbolic deaths. The first lines dispatch a handful of incidental characters: “In the next town over, a man had killed his family . . . When he had finished he turned the gun on himself.” Murray handles his protagonists with comparable ruthlessness, introducing them only to rip their identities and projected futures out from under them. The book employs a rotating structure: the four members of the Barnes family—PJ and his dad are joined by PJ’s mother, Imelda, and his sister Cass—take turns as narrator. Some of their metamorphoses are comic (the “clammy illicit flowerings” of puberty) and some are tragic (the downward slope of adult life) but what binds them together is a neck-prickling sense of defamiliarization. As with his celebrated second novel, “Skippy Dies,” Murray intertwines registers from the lyre-strumming to the fart-ripping. (“Skippy Dies” was long-listed for the Booker Prize in 2010. “The Bee Sting” is long-listed for this year’s Booker.) In “Skippy,” Murray recounts a semester at a boy’s boarding school in Dublin from a round of perspectives. At one point, a group of fourteen-year-olds try to communicate with their departed friend. “And even though it didn’t work,” one of them reflects, “it did sort of work . . . because each of us has his own little jigsaw piece of him he remembers, and when you fit them all together, and you make the whole picture, then it’s like he comes to life.” Read the full review at the New Yorker.

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