I’ll sail this ship alone, as someone once sang. Wind howls around our attic bedroom as I flounder off sleep’s shore. The deck lurches again as storm-whatever-this-one-is-called blows even harder. Is it possible to feel seasick in bed?
Every time I almost nod off, the wind blows me back. I am ‘sailing’ alone as my wife is unwell and has retreated to the guest room downstairs. A room also used to accommodate insomniacs lost and rubbing their eyes.
At some point, perhaps it is 3am, I chew another antacid tablet and shake a crampy foot; the slumber fates really don’t want me to sleep tonight. At some other point, I give up.
At least this gives me a chance to finish The Bee String by the Irish writer Paul Murray. It was shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, although that honour went instead to Prophet Song by Paul Lynch, another Irish writer.
I’ve not read Lynch’s novel and cannot compare and contrast, but The Bee Sting is remarkable, loving, funny, shocking and awash with human emotion – a breathtaking example of just what the novel can do, can achieve.
One family misadventure after another, a spinning tragi-comic tale of people on the skids, hating and loving each other in the same helter-skelter breath.
It’s a family saga, only not like one you will have read before. Set after the crash in Ireland, when half-built aspirational housing estates were left to rot; the one Murray conjures up is stranded in an unfriendly forest.
The Barnes family live in a grand house, and people look up to them, or they did. They own the local VW garage, whose sudden decline seems to be a symbol for the fall of the town, perhaps the country.
Mostly, the story is shared by the four members of the family. Teenage daughter Cass is smart but has taken up binge-drinking instead of working for her exams. She is more or less in love with her best friend, Elaine – “Cass and Elaine first met in Chemistry class, when Elaine poured iodine on Cass’s eczema during an experiment.”
The drinking, the fumbles, the boys, the anxieties are explored without a single cringe. For Murray likes writing in a teenage voice, is good at this trick, as he showed in Skippy Dies, published in 2010.
Next up is her younger brother PJ, equally smart but through no fault of his own in debt to the local sociopath ‘Ears’ Moran.
Then the story baton passes to their mother Imelda, who is selling off her jewellery on eBay while contemplating an affair with Big Mike, a local cattle farmer who looms in and out of their lives.
The novel’s title comes from an incident at Imelda and Dickie’s wedding when a bee got under her veil and stung her. She kept the veil down and, as Cass has noticed, there are no pictures of her mother on her wedding day.
Cleverly, this small incident is magnified and explained right at the end of the novel. That bee was not what it seemed to be.
Over then to Dickie, who is failing to run the garage and trembles at the prospect of his wealthy father coming back from his retirement in Portugal to help out.
Dickie spends his time thinking about the past, that wedding day, his student days, what happened, what shouldn’t have happened, what might have happened, and being forced to face the cost of his actions. He also, much to Imelda’s disgust, starts to build an apocalypse-proof bunker in the woods near their house.
Each character is given their own voice, and the story circles the past, one event in particular; to explain further here would spoil one of the novel’s revelations.
Imelda is a famed local beauty from a dirt-poor family. Her voice is captured in a stream-of-conscious flow that gains power from the lack of traditional punctuation.
Murry is not a fan of quotation marks to denote speech, preferring to let the dialogue seep into the narrative. He also writes with a resonantly Irish voice, giving a musical skip and spring to the words.
This is a masterpiece of storytelling, showing how to hold a story up to the light, first showing one side, then another. At its breathless conclusion, there is almost an element of the thriller in his writing.
Throughout, the story turns on one pivot; can one tragic event affect everything that happens to a family afterwards?
As I finish the book, that wind still howls and the deck still lilts. I take a couple of paracetamols and sleep for two hours, then surface with these thoughts: what a rotten night and what a wonderful novel.