The BookBrowse Review

Published August 2, 2023

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Bee Sting
The Bee Sting
A Novel
by Paul Murray

Hardcover (15 Aug 2023), 656 pages.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN-13: 9780374600303

From the author of Skippy Dies comes Paul Murray's The Bee Sting, an irresistibly funny, wise, and thought-provoking tour de force about family, fortune, and the struggle to be a good person when the world is falling apart.

The Barnes family is in trouble. Dickie's once-lucrative car business is going under—but rather than face the music, he's spending his days in the woods, building an apocalypse-proof bunker with a renegade handyman. His wife Imelda is selling off her jewelry on eBay, while their teenage daughter Cass, formerly top of her class, seems determined to binge-drink her way through her final exams. And twelve-year-old PJ is putting the final touches to his grand plan to run away from home.

Where did it all go wrong? A patch of ice on the tarmac, a casual favor to a charming stranger, a bee caught beneath a bridal veil—can a single moment of bad luck change the direction of a life? And if the story has already been written—is there still time to find a happy ending?


In the next town over, a man had killed his family. He'd nailed the doors shut so they couldn't get out; the neighbours heard them running through the rooms, screaming for mercy. When he had finished he turned the gun on himself.

Everyone was talking about it – about what kind of man could do such a thing, about the secrets he must have had. Rumours swirled about affairs, addiction, hidden files on his computer.

Elaine just said she was surprised it didn't happen more often. She thrust her thumbs through the belt loops of her jeans and looked down the dreary main street of their town. I mean, she said, it's something to do.

Cass and Elaine first met in Chemistry class, when Elaine poured iodine on Cass's eczema during an experiment. It was an accident; she'd cried more than Cass did, and insisted on going with her to the nurse. They'd been friends ever since. Every morning Cass called to Elaine's house and they walked to school together. At lunchtime, they rolled up their long skirts and wandered around the supermarket, listening to music from Elaine's phone, eating croissants from the bakery section that were gone by the time they got to the checkout. In the evening, they went to each other's houses to study.

Cass felt she'd known Elaine for ever; it made no sense that they had not always been friends. Their lives were so similar it was almost eerie. Both girls came from well-known families in the town: Cass's father, Dickie, owned the local Volkswagen dealership, while Elaine's dad, Big Mike, was a businessman and cattle farmer. Both girls were of slightly above-average height; both were bright, in fact they were consistently at the top of their class. Both intended to leave here some day and never come back.

Elaine had golden hair, green eyes, a perfect figure. When she bought clothes online, they always fitted perfectly, as if they'd been made with her in mind. Writing about her in her journal, Cass used words like grace and style. She had what the French called je ne sais quoi. Even when she was clipping her toenails, she looked like she was eating a peach.

When Cass came round to Elaine's house, they would sit in her bedroom with the carousel lamp on and look at the Miss Universe Ireland website. Elaine was thinking seriously about entering, though not for the title itself so much as the opportunities it might offer. The previous year's winner was now brand ambassador for a juice company.

Cass thought Elaine was prettier than any of the contestants pictured online. But it was tricky. Each of the girls competing to be Miss Universe Ireland, and from there to be Miss Universe for the world/universe overall, had an adversity they had overcome. One had been a refugee from a war in Africa. Another had needed surgery when she was a small girl. A very thin contestant had once been very fat. The adversity had to be something bad, like a learning disability, but not really bad, like being chained up in a basement for ten years by a paedophile. Cass's eczema would be a perfect adversity; they wondered, if she held her skin up against Elaine's long enough, whether she could pass it on to her. But it didn't seem to work. Elaine said the adversity requirement was unfair. When you think about it, it's almost like a kind of discrimination, she said.

The housekeeper knocked on the door to say it was time for Elaine's swimming lesson. Elaine rolled her eyes. The swimming pool was always full of Band-Aids and old people. Coming from here, she said. If that isn't an adversity, I don't know what is.

Elaine hated their town. Everyone knew everyone, everybody knew your business; when you walked down the street people would slow down their cars to see who you were so they could wave at you. There were no proper shops; instead of McDonald's and Starbucks, they had Binchy Burgers and Mangan's Café, where the owners worked behind the counter and asked after your parents. You can't even buy a sausage roll without having to tell someone your ...

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Bee Sting by Victoria Christopher Murray. Copyright © 2023 by Victoria Christopher Murray. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Award-winning novelist Paul Murray's The Bee Sting is a family drama that feels both expansive in its scope and intimate in its perceptions.

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Readers of Paul Murray's Booker Prize–longlisted novel Skippy Dies won't be surprised at The Bee Sting's 650-page heft; Skippy Dies was just as heavy physically but lighter in tone. By contrast, The Bee Sting opens with a stark and far from comedic anecdote: "In the next town over, a man had killed his family.... Everyone was talking about it—about what kind of man could do such a thing, about the secrets he must have had." The incident grabs the attention of teenager Cass Barnes and her friend Elaine, who are fascinated by this tragedy so close to their small town outside Dublin, and also sets the mood for the story that follows.

Studious, high-achieving Cass has recently been drawn into the carefree, vivacious Elaine's orbit; daughters of two of the town's most prominent businessmen, the girls form a friendship that is both expected (by virtue of their proximity) and unlikely (due to their very different personalities). But as Cass grows increasingly fascinated by Elaine and worried that her family's money troubles might jeopardize her ability to afford Trinity College Dublin, she begins engaging in risks of all kinds, behavior with consequences that might make her academic choices for her.

Even less rationally, Cass's younger brother, 12-year-old PJ, has become convinced that the family's financial hardships might cause them to send him away to boarding school. He finds comfort and (he believes) friendship chatting online with strangers about video games, and hatches half-baked plans to run away and meet up with an online acquaintance in Dublin.

Cass and PJ's mother Imelda, a one-time beauty, is dealing with the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis by selling jewelry and other valuables on eBay while growing ever more suspicious and resentful of her husband. She finds comfort in the arms of Big Mike (Elaine's father), whose business sense, charisma, and competence couldn't be less like Imelda's husband Dickie.

How did the family get into this mess in the first place? Perhaps a shrewder or more passionate businessman could have pulled the family Volkswagen dealership through the economic downturn, but Dickie Barnes is not that man. He's failing, the business is failing, and so Dickie, who never wanted to run the business in the first place, chooses to retreat—taking up with a cagey conspiracy theorist and outfitting a forest shack as a survivalist bunker.

The novel concentrates on each of the members of the Barnes family in turn, initially in long narrative sections that could stand alone as substantial short stories, complete with distinctive narrative voices (particularly Imelda's, which reads almost as stream-of-consciousness, with little to no punctuation). At first, readers are introduced to each character's current circumstances and crises, but soon elements of their history become interwoven with their present, and it becomes increasingly clear that their motivations are far more complicated than they first appear, their secrets darker and more desperate, and their stakes extremely high.

The length of The Bee Sting means that Murray has a very large canvas with which to work, enabling him to engage with big issues like sexuality, immigration, childhood trauma, and social class. But this expansiveness also allows him to delve deeply into each character's personality and personal history, giving readers essentially a series of intimate portraits of the Barnes family members. The foreshadowing of tragedy that Murray sets in motion from that very first sentence of the novel becomes ever more imposing. Mistakes and secrets pile on top of one another, and as the narrative shifts more quickly between characters' perspectives, readers can start to foresee what might be about to happen, compelled to keep reading even as they hope against hope for a happy ending.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

Literary Hub
Trust Paul Murray to make 650 pages feel too short. Seriously ... Murray unspools the lives of four relatively ordinary people with such brilliant specificity and extravagant empathy, in cool-water prose mixed with his trademark wry darkness, that it's difficult to let them go at the end.

Financial Times (UK)
Murray excels at the confusions and comedy of young adulthood, and the intensity of teenage friendship. We see that again here ... The Bee Sting deserves all the praise I am heaping on it. It is generous, immersive, sharp-witted and devastating; the sort of novel that becomes a friend for life.

The Guardian (UK)
Murray is exploring the way families can always sense the emotional temperature, even if they don't know where the fire is coming from. He is brilliant on fathers and sons, sibling rivalry, grief, self-sabotage and self-denial, as well as the terrible weakness humans have for magical thinking, not least in regard to the climate crisis. He can also create a laugh-out-loud moment ... You won't read a sadder, truer, funnier novel this year.

Booklist (starred review)
Murray is a master of the darkly ominous, limning these four seemingly demon-driven lives in granular detail. The novel moves expertly among them, switching from one point of view to another while offering both present circumstances and characters' back stories. Like Murray's Skippy Dies (2010), this is a tour de force, beautifully written (a cat was "so black it looked like a hole in the universe") and perfectly apposite in its tone. It is, in sum, utterly fascinating and unforgettable.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
No moment or episode is implausible ... carried by Murray's fine, measured prose and uncanny plotting ... Irresistible.

Library Journal (starred review)
This is a big, multilayered book full of secrets and surprises. But not a word is wasted in this unsettling, character-rich, devilishly plotted page-turner.

Publishers Weekly
[A]mbitious...The third act veers into a baroque tragedy...The questions aren't always enough to sustain the story, but their open-ended nature provokes readers to hang on to the end.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Gloria M
Tour de Force
There are countless reasons "The Bee Sting" by Paul Murray is shortlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize. It was on this reviewer's TBR list BEFORE that honor was announced! It is a tour de force, an epic work that demands to be in your home library!

So many interwoven threads to discover within these 642 pages-the economic crash in Ireland and its impact, family members struggling with their inability to connect with one another while troubles stack up in a teetering Jenga pile, and the struggle most humans face to be good especially as the world faces possible doom. The family consists of Dickie Barnes, failing business owner and his wife Imelda, adrift in a sea of memories of her deceased former fiance (Dickie's brother) and their two children: clever college bound Cass seeking answers in a bottle and pre-adolescent P.J., a loner on the verge of running away into danger.

All four do not see each other clearly and tragically do not seem to know each other at all. Mired and embroiled in their own morass they cling to others who only escalate the dismal trajectories of their lives. Dickie spends the majority of his time building an end of times bunker with Victor, his gun obsessed inept handyman while Imelda considers an affair with Big Mike the town philanderer and father to Elaine, Cass's narcissistic mean girl best friend. P.J. cannot get any family members to aid him in his crisis, so he is continually texting with Ethan, an online gaming "buddy" who may not be who he says he is.

Throw in lots of life problems such as a dreary small town a few hours from Dublin, a lack of money, confusion and denial over sexual feelings, faltering friendships and the ever present ability of human beings to just not face the truth about themselves and others and you have a forceful and robust novel that draws you in from the first line, "In the next town over, a man had killed his family." This turns out to be no one the Barnes or their circle actually know but. still sets a tone about secrets and the hidden nature of families. The flashbacks adroitly penned by Murray reveal the events that formulated this family, from Dickie and Imelda's dysfunctional childhoods and the mistakes all four of them make as they make their way in the world.

Everyone will find this book and these characters lingering in their thoughts for quite a long time. A most worthy read with a writer at the top of his game!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by M Zubair
A Riveting Dive into Suspense -
The Bee Sting," penned by an author whose name is bound to be on everyone's lips soon, is a remarkable dive into the world of suspense fiction that leaves readers buzzing with excitement. From the moment you flip open the book's cover, you're plunged into a gripping narrative that blends intricate characters, a meticulously woven plot, and a relentless pace that keeps you turning pages long into the night.

Set against the backdrop of a sleepy, idyllic town, the story follows Sarah Thornton, a young journalist with an uncanny knack for uncovering hidden truths. When a mysterious death occurs in the heart of the community, Sarah's curiosity leads her down a rabbit hole of secrets that threaten to upend the town's façade of normalcy. As she delves deeper, the tension steadily intensifies, mirroring the rising tempo of a symphony.

One of the book's standout strengths lies in its characters. Each one, from the enigmatic recluse in the outskirts to the charming café owner on the corner, is crafted with a complexity that adds layers to the story. The protagonist, Sarah, is a refreshing departure from the typical damsel-in-distress trope. Her intelligence, determination, and vulnerabilities make her not just relatable but admirable.

The plot is an intricate web of twists and turns, expertly spun by the author. Just when you think you have a handle on where the story is headed, the narrative takes an unexpected detour, leaving you reeling with surprise. This meticulous plotting keeps the suspense alive, ensuring that the reader is kept guessing until the very last page.

The pacing of "The Bee Sting" is relentless. Each chapter is a new surge of adrenaline, propelling you forward. The short, punchy chapters are a clever technique that make it nearly impossible to put the book down. The prose is a seamless blend of eloquence and simplicity, allowing the story to shine without unnecessary distractions.

As the layers of the mystery are peeled back, the atmosphere of the town becomes increasingly palpable. The author's vivid descriptions evoke a sense of immersion, making the setting almost a character in itself. The sense of place is so strong that you can practically hear the hum of the bees and smell the aroma of the blooming flowers.

In a genre that often falls victim to clichés and predictability, "The Bee Sting" is a breath of fresh air. It combines the best elements of mystery, suspense, and character-driven storytelling into a harmonious symphony of literary excellence. Whether you're a dedicated fan of the genre or a casual reader looking for an enthralling escape, this book is a must-read. Prepare to be stung by the brilliance of "The Bee Sting" - a novel that will leave you abuzz with excitement long after you've turned the final page.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Kolin
The Bee Sting: A Novel of Family, Fortune, and Morality
The Bee Sting is a brilliant and ambitious novel that captures the zeitgeist of our times with intelligence and compassion.
Paul Murray has written a masterpiece of contemporary fiction that combines humor and tragedy, realism and fantasy, satire and empathy.
The novel is not only a gripping story of a dysfunctional family, but also a profound commentary on the state of the world and the human condition.
I enjoyed reading The Bee Sting because it was well-written, engaging, and original. I was drawn into the lives of the characters and their struggles. I also appreciated the author’s sharp observations and witty dialogue.
The novel has some flaws, such as being too long, too complex, and too bleak. However, these did not detract from my overall enjoyment of the book.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by prem singh
The Bee Sting A Novel
Step into the universe of The Honey Bee Sting in this mesmerizing gem created by Paul Murray, best known for his educational range featured in Fine Bites the Dust. In this latest pearl, Murray delivers a pulsating flow of humour, courage and credibility that will have you completely charmed.

The Barnes family becomes a central figure in this storm of a novel, and their hardships will make you laugh and ponder the intricacies of attendance. Family head Dickie faces a crisis as his once booming automobile business teeters on the brink of collapse. In spite of this – instead of standing straight in front of its weight, he moves towards the forest, and brings the existential principle into an element of deliberate defiance.

In the interim Imelda and her loyal soul took control of the issues by turning her valuable assets into eBay postings, demonstrating her tenacity and versatility. Cass her brilliant least deceitful young lady, tests the limits of her opportunity in the most irregular of ways to wobble on a technique. That's how we got to see the brilliant twelve year old visionary P.J. Should not forget to remember.

Murray successfully brings these characters into the grip of fate and circumstance, exploring how apparently irrelevant chance exerts some control over our predestination in unexpected ways. Yet clearly in ordinary minutes lies the essence of Murray's virtues, the power of judgment and the adaptability of the human spirit.

The story is told so skillfully that an expert narrator like Murray could be called upon. As the characters struggle with their fundamentals, the reader receives a myriad of opinions - laughter, compassion, and a fundamental connection with the common human experience.

At its center, The Honey Bee Sting raises fundamental issues about the possibility of predestination and the hidden open door of recovery despite life's most overwhelming hardships. With a little decency, a little wit, and a whole lot of heart, Murray crafts a story that basically anyone will love.

Once again Paul Murray's fantasy range shines through brilliantly, and The Honey Bee Sting is an absolute must for those looking for a wildly clever experience.

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The Nazis and the German Auto Industry

Photo of a tan-colored VW utility vehicle used by German forces in WWII In Paul Murray's novel The Bee Sting, Dickie Barnes is the reluctant owner of a failing Volkswagen dealership. One character provokes Dickie's teenage daughter Cass by telling her that Volkswagen was started by the Nazis, so it's no great loss if the dealership shuts down. And it's true that even though these days Volkswagen might be best known as the developer of iconic vehicles like the Beetle, the Rabbit, and the VW Bus, or as the originator of the 1990s "Fahrvergnügen" advertising campaign, the company did indeed get its start as a project of the German government under the control of the National Socialist Party.

Volkswagen was founded in 1937 as Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH, soon renamed simply Volkswagenwerk ("The People's Car Company") and operated by the German Labor Front, the Nazis' national labor organization. Adolf Hitler had ambitious plans for developing an extensive automobile infrastructure in the country, and part of those aspirations included mass-producing an affordable automobile that could be owned by the average German family, hence, the "people's car." Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels presented a vision of "a happy people in a country full of blossoming beauty, traversed by the silver ribbons of wide roads, which are open to the modest car for the small man." Austrian engineer Ferdinand Porsche, already known for founding his own automobile company, was enlisted, along with his son, to help develop the early VW designs.

A whole town (then known as Stadt der Kdf-Wagen, or "City of the KdF Car," but since renamed Wolfsburg) was established to support the massive Volkswagen factory and house its workers. But the start of World War II in 1939 halted further development of the company's vehicles for the civilian market. Instead, the factory went into military production, during which time the facility became one of the largest sites of forced labor in the Third Reich, in large part because the fledgling company had not yet established its own civilian workforce. Soviet prisoners of war, concentration camp inmates (including Jews), and Soviet and Polish forced civilian laborers eventually made up 60% of the factory's workforce. Most tragically, hundreds of infants born to the women workers were taken into custody in the company's Kinderheim, where the children received inhumane treatment and were essentially neglected and left to starve to death.

After the end of the war, trusteeship of the Volkswagen plant was transferred to the British, and the rehabilitation of the company as a civilian manufacturer became a major part of the Allies' postwar economic recovery strategy, although consumers in the United States were initially reluctant to adopt the company's models due to their historical associations. In keeping with Germany's ongoing reckoning with its historical atrocities, the VW headquarters in Wolfsburg contains an exhibit acknowledging the company's checkered past, including oral histories by those forced to work there. Many of these witnesses' stories can also be heard on the company's website.

Photo of Volkswagen's Type 82 utility vehicle used by German forces during World War II, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Filed under People, Eras & Events

By Norah Piehl

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