Tolstoy said that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, but anyone who reads a lot of novels may think they have seen every possible permutation of family unhappiness. Not the least of Paul Murray’s many accomplishments in his fourth novel, The Bee Sting, is taking the all-too-familiar dynamic of the original “dysfunctional family” and making it seem new: for the Barnes family seems particularly prone making bad decisions and suppressing secrets. .
Set in a small, claustrophobic town near Dublin, this Booker-selected tale is a family saga told from the perspective of each family member in turn, much like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. We begin with the two Barnes children, teenagers Cass and PJ, who are both plotting, in different ways, their escape from the family home. Fans of Murray’s wonderful boarding school novel, Skippy Dies (2009), will know how good he is at inhabiting adolescents, and he digs deeply and convincingly into both Cass, whose sense of rootlessness threatens him. encourages wasting time with alcohol and boys instead. exams, and PJ, who fears his parents will send him to boarding school if he causes them trouble. (He tries to hide the fact that he’s already outgrown his last pair of sneakers, “only it’s not that simple because his socks started to have blood on them that doesn’t come out in the wash.”)
To the children, their parents, Imelda and Dickie, are irritating or pathetic, and the latter’s constant bickering over the collapse of Dickie’s car dealership – partly due to the bursting of the Tiger bubble Celtic, in part because Dickie’s heart is no longer in a healthy state of mind. a company that causes so much damage to the planet – creates a miserable atmosphere. Murray does a particularly deft job of fleshing out the adult couple when he tells the story from their perspective, making them sympathetic while remaining relatable to the problematic characters their children disdain.
Murray’s last novel, The Mark and the Void (2015), was a satire of the banking industry with a plot bordering on the burlesque: the novelist follows a banker ostensibly to gather material for a book, but actually because he is planning a flight. In this novel, the characters never came to life because they served an overcooked story. Here, however, you could apply Anne Tyler’s summary of the plots of most of her novels: “Time passes.” The characters are given room to breathe and the result is a triumph. (This is also not to say that the plot has been entirely neglected: the lingering promise of the truth about exactly why Dickie and Imelda got married ensures that curiosity is one of the reasons to keep filming the pages.)
The Bee Sting addresses some of the biggest issues of our time, but in a less strident manner than its predecessor. The result is first-rate immersive fiction – sharp-witted and clear-eyed but big-hearted – that doesn’t feel removed from reality.
The Bee Sting is published by Hamish Hamilton at £18.99. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph books