Admit to being puzzled as to how to place this novel. Not how to evaluate its merits, for there are many. Lisa O’Donnell’s first novel, The Death of Bees, was the recipient of the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize; awarded by the Common-wealth Foundation for first novels, the prize “seeks to unearth, develop, and promote the best new fiction from across the Commonwealth.” There is a craft to storytelling, and O’Donnell has, to a great extent, mastered it, especially the tricky technique of first-person narration.
Closed Doors is told from the point of view of Michael Murray, 11 going on 12, who lives with his loving parents (Ma and Da) and Granny (personalized by her bad cooking) on a council estate on the Scottish island of Bute. It is the Thatcher era, and Da is on the dole. When not perfecting his game of keepy-uppy, Michael is obsessed with girls and baffled by their inexplicable changeableness. In their presence, his behavior is a tangle of attraction, hate, and violence. His transition to maturity is thus complicated when his mother is raped, resulting in much physical and mental injury.
His parents’ attempt to keep the true nature of the event from Michael naturally leads to persistence on his part to understand what really happened. The domestic deceptions have negative effects beyond the home. The mother’s refusal to report the crime to the police casts her husband in a bad light (the neighbors are convinced he beat her) and entangles the family in lies, most seriously when the rapist strikes again.
In the end, however, Ma fesses up, becoming a local heroine for facing her attacker in court, and Michael matures. It reads easily, and one scene, during which the family goes berry-picking, brilliantly portrays how an innocent gesture by a child brings a family to the breaking point.
But there has to be something more than craft to elevate a work of fiction to the next level, to “serious” fiction, even to “literature.” Which brings me to the puzzle with which I began: Who is the audience for Closed Doors? A clue can be found in the reaction of readers to The Death of Bees, which concerned the fraught attempts of two underage sisters, also living in council housing in Scotland, to conceal the deaths of their drug-addled parents in order not to fall into the hands of social services. Thus, they bury mom and dad in the backyard.
If that sounds familiar, that’s because it was also the premise of Ian McEwan’s first novel, The Cement Garden (1978). Whereas McEwan portrayed the psychological fallout from the attempt by siblings to keep secret the death of a parent, O’Donnell takes a different tack. As one reader-reviewer on Amazon puts it: “I must warn that there’s a lot of morbidness in this book and some really graphic scenes that made my gut churn, as well as a lot of teen issues. The author candy coats nothing, but I loved it for that.”
There are over 150 five-star reviews of The Death of Bees on Amazon along that line, by readers who have probably never heard of The Cement Garden (or of Ian McEwan for that matter). As for the book’s “morbidness,” let’s take this passage describing the sisters’ disposal of their father’s corpse:
Getting Gene off the bed and into the garden was a living nightmare. His face was swollen, as if someone had beaten the crap out of him, and he was sticky, like he was leaking venom. It was coming out his eyes, his nose, and his mouth. And the smell, I was gagging.
We decided to wrap him in the sheet he was lying on, we couldn’t stomach the idea of touching him again, but it was soaked right through with this syrupy fluid and so we had to get another sheet and that did mean touching him again. Rubber gloves would have been useful, but we didn’t have any.
What go-to kids! Burying the folks in the ice-cold yard on Christmas Eve is only their first trial. One sister starts drinking, selling drugs, and sleeping with a married man, and there are visits from Gene’s mafia-like drug suppliers. Closed Doors portrays nothing on that order, but the story is also about resilience, in this case of a family. As in The Death of Bees, however, the story is adolescent-centered, with love and security the payoff.