Caught in the circle of trauma | Review of Booker-shortlisted ‘The Bee Sting’ by Paul Murray

Murray’s hefty family saga set in post-2008 Ireland explores the almost-tenderness between people as well as their inner demons

November 09, 2023 09:26 am | Updated 09:36 pm IST

In the book, the Barnes family is caught in an invisible mesh, unable, unwilling even, to find a way out.

In the book, the Barnes family is caught in an invisible mesh, unable, unwilling even, to find a way out. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

I found I couldn’t read Paul Murray’s sprawling family saga The Bee Sting without returning over and again to a family constellation therapy workshop I participated in last summer. 

Family constellation therapy is premised on the belief that each of us belongs to a complicated family “system”, within which unresolved traumas and unprocessed emotions are picked up or passed on — and this shapes who we are, and our relationships with anyone beyond this “system”.

In the Booker Prize-shortlisted The Bee Sting, the Barnes family, in a small town in post-financial-crash Ireland, is caught in this invisible mesh, unable, unwilling even, to find a way out. They unravel as a family, and unravel again, and sometimes it takes all your resolve not to just close the book and look away. There are plenty of chances to do so too, given the novel lands at a hefty 645 pages but it’s testimony to Murray as a storyteller that you keep turning them to the end.

Author Paul Murray

Author Paul Murray | Photo Credit: thebookerprizes.com

What keeps the momentum going — though in a book this size there are noticeable slacks and sag — is the structure. We encounter the Barnes family in sections. The first given over to “Cass”, who is drinking her way through high school finals, then PJ, her younger brother, skewered between adolescence and adulthood, the unhappy mother, town beauty Imelda, and finally, the unhappier head of the family, Dickie, whose car workshop is on the verge of closing. Murray chooses to extend these narratives at the end of the book into alternating second person stories, which I was happy enough to encounter, but then he follows this with a final section written almost like a play, that spirals towards a dramatic finish — perhaps much too dramatic for my liking.

Secrets big and small

What I marvelled at though was the way in which we experience the life of each of these characters existing in vulnerability and (often comic) self-absorption. In Cass’s narrative, for instance, her brother PJ barely features in her life and on the pages. She’s much too focused on her best frenemy, the ethereal Elaine, devoting her time and energy to their endless shenanigans — crushing on a substitute English teacher, drinking, and messing around with boys, pausing only sometimes to wonder if this is truly who she is.

We learn of small secrets — the bee sting that ruined Imelda’s wedding day, the fact that she was once engaged to Dickie’s dead brother Frank, how Dickie was run over by a bus while a student at Trinity College, Dublin. And each of these secrets is masterfully revealed and laid bare in the parents’ narratives that we encounter later. PJ’s section is the briefest, and perhaps closest in tone and setting to Murray’s 2010 novel When Skippy Dies, and here we’re privy to the effects of a failing, unhappy marriage, crushed by financial ruin, the weight of class difference, and human cruelty.

PJ is a nervous child, a squirrel follower and forest explorer, struggling to make sense of the world — the one his parents inhabit and the larger living planet — but everything is falling apart. To me, the most heartbreaking detail was PJ not revealing that he’d outgrown his shoes, and wearing a pair that bloodied his feet. When Imelda takes him shopping later, in her narrative, she is crushed to discover this detail. It’s these moments, these descriptions, that linger — the almost-tenderness between people, the gradual hollowing out of a small town, the fleeting glimpse of a rare red squirrel in the forest. 

Dickie’s tragic story

Imelda’s narrative, told in breathless sentences sans full stops, reads as it’s meant to; an unending river of thoughts, unweighed, unscanned, revealing a poverty-stricken childhood bereft of all forms of nourishment — “What’s for breakfast Nothing What’s for dinner Nothing” — and later, a grief at losing Frank, too large and unwieldy to hold. 

As devastating, and surprising, is Dickie’s story, though I will strive to not reveal it here. I wasn’t quite convinced by his attempt at becoming a survivalist — one conversation with his daughter doesn’t feel like strong-enough motivation for a character to start building a bunker in the woods in preparation for the apocalypse — but what I was taken by were the revelations embedded in his story that render his situation that much more tragic. 

How little we may care for each other, the book tells us, even when we’re family. Evident so devastatingly in the way the lives of these characters touch deeply, lightly, each revolving only on their own axis, holding each other away from love, from light.

The Bee Sting
Paul Murray
Hamish Hamilton
₹899

The reviewer is the author of ‘Everything the Light Touches’ (2022).

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