A Rollicking Tragicomic Tale of Unending Family Drama

THE BEE STING, by Paul Murray

In Paul Murray’s latest novel, “The Bee Sting” — an epic tale reaching back decades and spanning roughly 650 pages — things are pretty apocalyptic for one down-on-their-luck family, and that’s before we get to climate change. The problems, you might say, are coming from inside the house.

The once-wealthy Barnes family has been struck hard by the 2008 financial crash, much like “half the shops on Main Street” in their Irish town. Yet as others steady themselves, the Barneses sink.

The patriarch, Dickie Barnes, runs the car dealership and garage franchise his father began, but Dickie has never had a knack for sales. To make matters worse, after a pivotal conversation with his daughter about the environment, Dickie would rather talk customers out of buying cars than sell them one. On top of all of that, there’s a rogue mechanic stealing catalytic converters and tanking the Barneses’ reputation.

In dire straits, Dickie is forced to close one of his garages, and his wife, Imelda, “the most beautiful girl in the four provinces,” begins resentfully selling off their possessions to make ends meet. Their children — teenage Cass, who’s drinking her way through finals, and 12-year-old PJ, who spends his days texting a stranger about video games and planning to run away — are left to flounder in their own well-depicted angsts.

And these are just the Barneses’ surface troubles, the metaphoric tips of the melting icebergs.

Each member of the Barnes family is facing inner demons, too, which we learn about through alternating chapters dedicated to each character. In Imelda’s sections, stream-of-consciousness chunks that have no punctuation (a choice evoking her lack of formal education), we learn of her growing up in poverty with a violent father; of her meeting her true beloved, not Dickie but his brother, Frank; of Frank’s tragic death; and of the bee that stung her the day she married Dickie in his place, which seemed a punishment, or maybe an omen?

In Dickie’s sections, we flash back to his past days as a Trinity College student and the secrets he kept while there, which feed into his present troubles — there’s a blackmailer threatening to destroy him. But instead of communicating his fears, Dickie is building a bunker in the woods with the help of his handyman, the doomsday prepper Victor. (In a tragicomic twist, the well they dig gives them E. coli.) Conflicted Cass, who was sure she failed her exams, manages to get into Trinity, where she rooms with a first-rate frenemy, Elaine, and stews over who she wants to be. Sweet PJ is targeted by a bully who claims his mother has been ripped off by Dickie’s garage — and then he’s targeted by someone even worse.

This all may sound bleak, but Murray’s writing is pure joy — propulsive, insightful and seeded with hilarious observations. (Take PJ on “Pet Sematary”: “The moral of the film is that you can technically bring things back but it’s a lot of trouble and at the end of the day you will probably wish you hadn’t.”) And in this ailing family, there are shining moments of incredible love.

Through the Barneses’ countless personal dramas, Murray explores humanity’s endless contradictions: How brutal and beautiful life is. How broken and also full of potential. How endlessly fraught and persistently promising. Whether or not we can ever truly change our course, the hapless Barneses will keep you hoping, even after you turn the novel’s last page.

Jen Doll is the author of three books, including, most recently, the young adult novel “That’s Debatable.”

THE BEE STING | By Paul Murray | 643 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $30

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