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Booker Prize 2023 - The Bee Sting by Paul Murray

Rarely do I sit down to type up my review with no idea how to begin. But first things first: I loved The Bee Sting. There is so much happening on these modest 650 pages, I will not even attempt to summarise it all, not least because I definitely do not want to rob any prospective readers of the joy of discovering all the different layers and plotlines Murray has so expertly assembled. So I will start with just a brief introduction.

The Barnes family have always enjoyed a special, elevated position in the small Irish town they live in. Ever since Maurice founded his lucrative Volkswagen dealership the world has looked rosy for him and his family. But Maurice has long stepped back from the business and moved to Portugal to enjoy his retirement in warmer climates. It is Dickie, his eldest son, who now runs the business. And it is not going well. The financial crash of 2008 has damaged businesses all over the country and around the world but while many have recovered, the dealership is not getting back on its metaphorical feet. Dickie’s daughter Cass is entering her final year of school and the looming threat of her father’s bankruptcy is causing her to panic. What if her best friend Elaine finds out they can no longer afford expensive skiing holidays? Will the friendship survive? Should she even be trying to get into college if her parents won’t be able to pay her tuition? Once at the top of every class, Cass now spends her evenings binge drinking rather than studying, because what’s the point anyways? Her 12 year old brother PJ is lonely. His family used to be fun and loving, now everyone around him is distracted and he only ever seems to be in the way. There’s only one place he still feels accepted and that is online, on this forum for his favourite video game. Here he has a friend, Ethan, and sometimes, when his family is just too much, all he wants to do is run away and visit him in Dublin. Imelda, the town’s beauty, has to sell off her jewellery and half her wardrobe, all because her husband is refusing to ask his father for help. She and the kids have to suffer the consequences of Dickie’s poor business decisions. Meanwhile, her husband is hiding out in the woods, building a bunker in case disaster strikes, refusing to face reality.

Cass, PJ, Imelda, Dickie. One by one we dive into their stories to explore their present and their past in order to try and find an answer to the question of where it all went wrong.

Each family member gets around 150 pages for their story. We spend time with them, get to know and grow to love them despite of and perhaps because of their flaws. We dive deep into Cass’ overwhelming anxiety, Fail to comprehend what is happening alongside PJ, fight for some form of Control with Imelda, and see Dickie try to hold his family together. And along the way we come across every emotion possible. I would describe the book as incredibly funny and devastatingly sad. You cheer the characters on and fear for them. In their respective sections, we get to know the Barnes’s so intimately, it is always a little heart-breaking when one’s story comes to an end. But before you even have the time to be truly sad about letting one of them go, you are already deeply involved in the next perspectives. Murray has a particular talent for writing the children, who are such authentic teenagers, it is hard to believe they weren’t written by one. Secrets are revealed, one by one, as the family’s story that seemed so straight-forward at first glance, becomes magnificently complex. A constant reminder that there is always more to the people around you, even those closest to you.

Don’t be intimidated by the size of the book – it is such a pacey tour-de-force, the 650 pages fly by without you even noticing. Paul Murrays storytelling is winding, almost circular. We visit the same situations repeatedly to regard them form different perspectives without it ever getting tiring. Each section has its own distinctive voice, especially Imelda’s written like a stream of consciousness. All the while his prose is crisp and clear and his vocabulary exquisite. Repeatedly, I found myself circling individual words because they were just so perfectly chosen.

Ambitious, adventurous, kind and funny, this novel is powered on by a special energy of a writer at the top of his game who has formed a deep bond with his unfortunate protagonists and is not afraid to show them at their worst, as well as their best.

The Bee Sting is definitely my favourite of the shortlist.

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