Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2023. A patch of ice on the road, a casual favour to a charming stranger, a bee caught beneath a bridal veil – can a single moment of bad luck change the direction of a life?

Dickie’s once-lucrative car business is going under - but rather than face the music, he’s spending his days in the woods, building an apocalypse-proof bunker. His exasperated wife Imelda is selling off her jewellery on eBay while half-heartedly dodging the attentions of fast-talking cattle farmer Big Mike.  

Meanwhile, teenage daughter Cass, formerly top of her class, seems determined to binge-drink her way to her final exams. And 12-year-old PJ, in debt to local sociopath ‘Ears’ Moran, is putting the final touches to his grand plan to run away. 

Yes, in Paul Murray’s brilliant tragicomic saga, the Barnes family is definitely in trouble. So where did it all go wrong? And if the story has already been written – is there still time to find a happy ending?  

The Booker Prize 2023
Published by
Hamish Hamilton
Publication date

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Paul Murray

Paul Murray

About the Author

Paul Murray was born in Dublin in 1975, and wrote his first novel – An Evening of Long Goodbyes – while doing a creative writing MA at the University of East Anglia.
More about Paul Murray

Paul Murray’s saga, The Bee Sting, set in the Irish Midlands, brilliantly explores how our secrets and self-deceptions ultimately catch up with us. This family drama, told from multiple perspectives, is at once hilarious and heartbreaking, personal and epic. It’s an addictive read

— The Booker Prize 2023 judges

Watch our interview with Paul Murray

Susan Lynch reads from The Bee Sting

Paul Murray on writing The Bee Sting

‘It took about five years, give or take. I spent some time going down rabbit holes of one kind and another before I finally started in earnest. I always write the first draft in longhand, then I type it up, then there are two or three major revisions before I’ll send it to the editor. Once it’s rolling the process is pretty steady – I treat it like a regular job, show up at my desk from Monday to Friday week after week till it’s done. I don’t take any serious time off from it – I need to stay in touch with the material, and anyway even when I’m not working on it I’ll be thinking about it. So holidays feel somewhat redundant. 

The last book I wrote was set in an investment bank, which entailed a lot of research. For this one I didn’t need to do any deep dives – it was more about getting the Midlands details right, the Millennial details right, the GAA stuff, and that could be researched by talking to people. The plot appears as I write – that is, once I start writing page 1, I’ll begin to get ideas for page 2, page 50, page 400. So there’s usually a fairly elaborate plan at a fairly early stage – though I try not to get too attached to it, because so much changes with the writing itself.’

Read the full interview here

The Bee Sting by Paul Murray

Why you should read The Bee Sting, according to our judges

‘The Bee Sting is the very funny, sad and truthful story of the Barnes family, set in contemporary Ireland and written with considerable wit and compassion. 

‘The characters are unforgettable. They persist with hope and are capable of startling moments of love and generosity, despite their myriad flaws and problems. 

‘Imelda Barnes is a wonderful creation - initially we see her exterior waspishness and materialism but as the book progresses, Murray skilfully reveals the family secrets which have led them all to their present situation. Imelda’s response to the hardship of her childhood is at once courageous, self-deluding and entirely human.’

Paul Murray at the Booker Prize 2023 shortlist announcement at the National Portrait Gallery, London

What the critics said

John Self, The Financial Times 

‘This novel – the tale of a man who destroys himself in order to please others, but ends up destroying them too – is a triumph from Irish writer Paul Murray, even better than his 2010 cult story of school life, Skippy Dies. It is generous, immersive, sharp-witted and devastating; the sort of novel that becomes a friend for life.’ 

Jake Kerridge, The Telegraph 

‘Tolstoy said that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, but anybody who reads a lot of novels may well think they’ve seen every possible permutation of familial unhappiness. Not the least of Paul Murray’s many achievements in his fourth novel, The Bee Sting, is to take the overfamiliar dynamics of the stock “dysfunctional family” and make them seem fresh: for the Barnes family seem uniquely prone to making bad decisions and suppressing secrets. The result is a first-class piece of immersive fiction – sharp-witted and clear-eyed but big-hearted – that doesn’t feel as if it’s in retreat from reality.’ 

Ian Sansom, The Spectator 

‘If you have been waiting for your big holiday read, finally here it is: an immersive, brilliantly structured, beautifully written mega-tome that is as laugh-out-loud funny as it is deeply disturbing. It is never a good idea to begin a review (or indeed to end one) with a round of applause unless you want to sound like a complete pushover or a total patsy, but full credit where it’s due: Paul Murray, the undisputed reigning champion of epic Irish tragicomedy, has done it again.’ 

The Bee Sting by Paul Murray

Other nominated books by Paul Murray

Skippy Dies