Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce
An unusual book of female friendship, the hunt for what is truly important in life, and much more, this is a novel that offers so much. Funny, touching and definitely unusual, this book deftly handles challenges and tragedies with humour and real insight into characters who make unlikely choices. With an eye for the ridiculous, Joyce never criticizes people for their choices in clothes or behaviour, but lets the reader makes her own connections. With mysterious secrets and past tragedies, the reader is invited to work out subtexts without working too hard, as the story flows without apparent effort.
The main character of Miss Margery Benson is a wonderful creation; from a childhood tragedy to bored and unfulfilled teacher is a short section, but implies so much about women’s lives in the first half of the twentieth century in a way that is particularly impressive from a twenty first century writer. She inspires, not that she would ever recognize that description, and her loyalty is touching and over whelming. This is a story of a quest for a near mythical beast, with a lot of hard won knowledge and planning, but no one could plan for real life as seen in this book. Enid Pretty defies description, but is also a memorable character. The other people of this book are real people in the novel, as each contributes their backstory, their own obsessions and more. Journeys, settings and life generally are beautifully drawn, and give real depth to this unusual and memorable novel.
The book opens with a defining line. “When Margery was ten, she fell in love with a beetle”. It proves to be a significant day in 1914, when her life was about to change dramatically. The golden beetle is in a book of incredible creatures, “The Golden Beetle of New Caledonia”, and her father’s near throwaway line “Imagine how it would be to find this one, and bring it home” is going to affect her life forever. The focus then shifts to September 1950, a colourless existence as an ineffective teacher, a sort of breakdown which drives Margery into a course of action. This is a post war London of rationing, shortages and pale lives, as the after effects of two world wars are still being felt and life seems one dimensional. Margery comes up with a plan so audacious that she can hardly bear to admit to it, to travel to New Caledonia and find the golden beetle, to bring home specimens that will take their place in the Natural History Museum. She makes meticulous preparations, but it is in trying to find a companion/assistant that she inadvertently changes lives. Her travels, with their challenges, twists and turns are brilliantly described, and there are several moments that are genuinely moving as well as many different insights.
This is a book that I would thoroughly recommend to anyone seeking something a little different, with its dark moments but also with its genuine humour. It is a historical novel in some senses, but it also speaks of people and their settings in so many ways that are timeless, the secrets that they keep, their resilience, their ability to adapt. There is a strong bond here between women, compelled by their idea of a second chance, their vocation, their unspoken loves. For those who want to read outside a set genre, who enjoy the unusual, this is such a good novel about more than a hunt for a beetle, however golden.
In this first post of 2021, may I wish you a Happy New Year. Let’s hope that everything soon gets easier for all!