Everything you need to know about the Booker Prize 2023 shortlist
As the Booker Prize 2023 shortlist is announced, we’ve pulled together the most interesting facts and trends that have emerged in this year’s selection
In his hilarious and heartbreaking fourth novel, Paul Murray presents an unforgettable Irish family in the grip of multiple crises: emotional, financial and existential
Whether you’re new to the book or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide, featuring insights from critics, our judges and the book’s author and translator, as well as discussion points and suggestions for further reading.
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.
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?
As the New Yorker observed, Cass is ‘a bookish, age-appropriately surly teenager in her last year of secondary school … a daddy’s girl who doesn’t know how to forgive evidence of his imperfections. She hates her mother, whom she sees as shallow and petty, as fiercely as she loves her mercurial friend, Elaine’. A straight-A student, Cass has also contrived to go off the rails at the worst possible moment, discovering alcohol and boys just as she should be preparing for her final exams.
Cass’s younger brother is a naive and sensitive 12-year-old, traumatised at the thought of being sent away to boarding school and of his parents splitting up. He is also being stalked by a local bully over an unpaid debt of his father’s. Desperate for his family to stay together and to return to happier times, he fosters a misguided plan to run away, while hoping that his wealthy grandfather will return from Portugal to make everything alright again.
Imelda, once ‘the most beautiful girl in the four provinces’ and a woman with expensive tastes, is struggling to adjust to the sharp downturn in the Barnes family’s economic fortunes. She is desperately trying to keep up appearances and present a respectable front to her fellow members of the Tidy Towns committee while eBaying her possessions and berating her husband, Dickie, a man she should never have married in the first place.
As the 2008 recession bites, Dickie’s used car business is in steep decline, leading to local gossip and domestic rows. But Dickie’s problems run much deeper. Not only has he failed to live up to the standards of his more charismatic brother, he also harbours dark secrets that threaten to tip the Barnes family over the edge.
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.
The Bee Sting is Murray’s fourth novel, which is shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2023. His previous three – An Evening of Long Goodbyes, Skippy Dies and The Mark and the Void – have all met with critical acclaim.
An Evening of Long Goodbyes was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award and nominated for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award. Skippy Dies was shortlisted for the Costa Novel award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and longlisted for the Booker Prize. The Mark and the Void won the Everyman Wodehouse Prize 2016. Paul Murray lives in Dublin.
‘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.’
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.
‘I was reminded, while engrossed in this tragicomic saga, of EM Forster’s observation: “Long books, when read,are usually overpraised, because the reader wishes to convince himself and others that he has not wasted his time.” But The Bee Sting deserves all the praise I am heaping on it. 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.’
Sarah Gilmartin, The Irish Times
‘As with the best comic fiction, the darkness is never too far away. Sexual violence, bereavement, homophobia, environmental ruin are just some of the topics broached. There is a brutal streak of fatalism running through The Bee Sting, most literally with the character of Rose, Imelda’s gypsy aunt who has visions of death. The outcome may well be preordained, as Murray’s ending underlines, but that doesn’t stop his characters trying their hardest to influence proceedings. One thing is clear: there’s no escaping the past. Shadow selves are a recurring feature, ghosts trying to get out of the box. The chief success of The Bee Sting is the way it highlights how little control we have over it all.’
Johanna Thomas-Corr, The Times
‘The Bee Sting has much in common with the big American novels of Jonathan Frantzen and A.M. Homes, in which misfortune is piled upon comic misfortune and characters do things like build doom sheds and accidentally injure their loved ones. You could complain there’s a formula to this stuff: sentimentality undercut by absurdist comedy; nihilism leavened by love. But as soon as you feel yourself being manipulated, you’re awed by a sentence.
‘By turn funny and corrosive, portentous and poignant, The Bee Sting is a symphonic family saga that puts its characters – and the reader – through the emotional wringer. The range and depth of its sympathies mean it’s painful to let go of the characters at the end.’
By turn funny and corrosive, portentous and poignant, The Bee Sting is a symphonic family saga that puts its characters – and the reader – through the emotional wringer
‘There’s a sense that a novel ought to come in at around 85,000 words, and it can definitely be hard to persuade readers to take on something longer. I’m wary myself of long books – it feels like such a commitment. But that’s an illusion. If a book is gripping, then you don’t care about the page count. Conversely, if a book is dull it will feel like a grind even if it’s only 200 pages.
‘That being said, I didn’t realise how long The Bee Sting was until I was about to send it to my editor, and I did expect some pushback. But she felt that the story had enough twists and turns to keep the reader engaged, and I didn’t want to cut purely for the sake of cutting. It was a real relief – another editor might not have been so brave. However I still dream of writing a 150-page, super-dense novella, like The Crying of Lot 49.’
Read Paul Murray’s full interview here.
The Bee Sting is a book in which a series of bad things happen to a group of people with whom the reader sympathises, and becomes fond of, even though the choices they make are often poor. Yet despite the bleakness of the story, it is a hugely enjoyable novel, described by the Guardian as ‘pure pleasure’. How do you think the author achieves the feat of taking potentially depressing subject matter and producing such a rollicking and entertaining read?
The novel begins with long sections describing events from the point of view of each of the four main characters. But in the final third, the chapters get shorter and shorter as the story moves towards its devastating conclusion. What do you think the author was trying to convey by giving each family member ever-shorter passages as the novel goes on, and does it affect both your reading of the book and the pace at which the story unfolds?
In the book’s final third, as the tension builds, the narrative switches to a second-person view. Why do you think the author does this, and how does it affect your reading of the story or your relationship with the characters?
The sections of the book presented from Imelda’s point of view have no punctuation. Do you think the author wrote her chapters in this way to reflect her manic state of mind, her lack of formal education, or for some other reason? And why is Imelda the only character written in this way?
Near the beginning of the book, Elaine tells Cass the funny story of the bee sting that derailed Imelda and Dickie’s wedding, and which seems to explain the lack of wedding photos in the Barnes’s home. When you read this passage for the first time, did you suspect that the story of the bee was possibly not true?
While the Barnes family’s troubles appear to have come to a head in the wake of Ireland’s recent economic crash, the root of their problems go back generations. As the book’s cover blurb asks: ‘If you wanted to change this story, how far back would you have to go?’ How would you answer that question, and who, above all, is responsible for the family’s tragic circumstances?
Dickie’s brother, Frank, the love of Imelda’s life, looms over the couple’s marriage. Discuss how Frank’s death shapes the events of the book and the way that certain characters have never come to terms with his passing.
The book begins with the line ‘In the next town over, a man had killed his family’, foreshadowing events later in the novel, and hinting at how the behaviour of several fathers in the book damages their children in different ways. Discuss how the author portrays various destructive fathers in The Bee Sting, and the way multiple characters are dealing with the fallout of their fathers’ actions.
Both the past and the future terrorise several characters in the book – they are either haunted by experiences earlier in their lives or terrified by what might happen in the months ahead, whether that be a beating from a bully, terrible exam results, financial ruin, a secret being revealed or the end of the world. Discuss how the author traps the Barnes family in a panicked present as the past and future bear down on them.
The shadow of climate change hangs over the novel, beginning with Cass learning that her father’s car business is responsible for a shocking amount of carbon emissions and leading to Dickie’s increasingly desperate plans to survive a climate apocalypse. To what extent do you think the book could be characterised as a novel about climate anxiety?
Irish Examiner: Paul Murray interview: ‘I avoid feedback on my books’