The Short Version: When Marnie and Nelly’s good-for-nothing parents die (murder-suicide), the girls decide to bury them in the backyard and make a go of it by themselves. With the help of a kindly neighbor, they end up relatively happy and life goes on – but when their grandfather shows up, it’s only a matter of time before the truth comes out.
The Review: Everyone gives quite a lot of credit to the opening of this novel. It begins, from Marnie’s point of view, saying:
Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.
And, yeah, that’s a doozy of an opener. But to give such attention to the opener does the rest of this beautiful little book a disservice: the whole thing is written with a macabre sense of wit and whimsy paired with a gently (but indissolubly) strong sense of family and love.
There’s something about the book that made me think of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle – although I have only modest and hazy memories of that particular novel. Still, the sense of the macabre I think is what does it: there’s nothing supernatural here or even spooky (well… hang on, I’ll come to that) but instead just that grim eerieness that comes from that fact that these girls – 12 and 15 – saw their parents dead and then decided to bury them. I mean, come on – that’s a little gruesome, is it not?
It helps, though, that Ms. O’Donnell keeps a light hand on the proceedings. She recognizes the creepy premise and spins her two unique protagonists into inventive and precocious young girls. Marnie is somewhat more typical – the brilliant young girl who is otherwise distracted from her studies by drugs and sex and being a teenager in the UK (which, seriously, those kids have one hell of a time…) – than Nelly and while I liked Marnie as a character, Nelly was the more memorable: she speaks with an old-timey verve, tossing out sentences and thoughts that make her sound like a dottery old lady from an Agatha Christie. It’s delightful, especially because she’s still such a little girl in many other ways and the push and pull between that maturity and that childishness crackles without any seeming effort. I could see how people might be annoyed by the quirk – but I, for one, loved it. Reminded me of my own sister a bit, I’m not afraid to say. Although I don’t think she ever swanned about speaking so posh when she was a little girl.
Anyway, as I dove into the story (it reads quite fast, probably due to the relatively short chapters – the events are told [and sometimes retold] from the points of view of Marnie, Nelly, and Lennie the neighbor in a rapid patter), I had a little bit of worry about how it would go. It seemed, for the most part, to be lining up a bit predictably but also plotlessly at first. There was the obvious tension of “will someone find out about the bodies!” but the girls were doing such a good job of hiding the fact that their deadbeat druggie parents had not just kicked off but kicked off for good, I honestly never had much of a sense of any worry. When Lennie, the kindly older gay neighbor – who had been tagged as a sex offender for, genuinely, a bit of a misunderstanding (although this is not to say that he wasn’t in the wrong) – takes them in, I began to think that the novel was much more about the creation of an unorthodox family. Musings, in the quirky and oddball way, on what a family actually can mean. As Lennie (SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS)
As Lennie started to slide into dementia (cancer-produced), we simultaneously got the introduction of two other strong parental figures. One was Vlado, who we’d originally been led to rather dislike, and the other was Ronald T. Macdonald (the name is a bit cringe-worthy). Macdonald, the girls’ grandfather, is straight out of The Night of the Hunter, man. He’s a nasty piece of God-fearing, drink-loving work. He’d beat the girls’ mother, to the point that he largely drove the mother into the arms of the father and down the destructive path that led to the lavender plot in the backyard. And there’s just something wrong about him, from the get-go. He’s all repentant and a good church-going man… but there’s a violence, hidden about him, and it leaks out now and then. When Lennie is finally deemed unfit to be their guardian (in a heroic sacrifice, truly deserving of the term) and he takes them in… I was worried that things were about to get well and truly dark. And they did – although they were also redeemed rather quickly.
If, actually, I had any quarrel with the book, it’d be that: that O’Donnell gets our girls out of trouble almost before we realize they’re in it. She could’ve let it build a little more, keeping the same major points of action but allowing that menace to really develop into something more palpable. Still, you can’t argue with the ending – joy-inducing if ever there was one.
I’ve also neglected to point out that the book deals quite well with what it means to be a teenager and to be discovering yourself. Lennie has a terrific observation at one point, regarding the revelation that one of Marnie’s friends is a lesbian, where he mentions that it’s so easy for these girls to experiment and to develop their lives publicly – and how that wasn’t an option for him and his generation. And Marnie’s relationship with her first serious boyfriend, how that builds and crashes – it’s all done so realistically that you can’t help but think of your own misadventures and line these up right along side. As surreal as the premise of the book sometimes feels, it also feels so intensely normal and real and isn’t that the thing about life, really?
Rating: 5+ out of 5. A charming and delightful debut novel. For the character of Nelly alone, I want to recommend this book – she’s quirky as hell but if you’re like me, you’ll love her. There’s a lovely macabre element to the whole thing, as I’ve mentioned, which makes the story a bit more than its brethren (although it never tips it into even magical realism, let alone horror or gothic or anything even remotely like that). It reads delightfully fast and finishing it with a cup of tea on an early Saturday morning felt like the perfect thing.