Monday 29 November 2021
MISS BENSON'S BEETLE by Rachel Joyce
"Rachel Joyce has a gift for expressing profound truths with simple directness."
This was a recent choice (someone else's) for my reading group, and I was drawn to it for several reasons. I'd greatly enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce's first novel, and The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey even more, with its deeply poignant, revelatory ending. I love stories about exploration, discovery and the natural world, and when you add two highly memorable characters, a mystery, a troubled war veteran and Rachel Joyce's characteristic warmth and insight, this was a winner. And only when reaching the Afterword did I learn that the sparking-point for the novel was a photograph that intrigued me when I saw it at Kelmscott Manor a few years ago; it shows May Morris, William Morris's daughter, with her companion Mary Lobb, with whom she travelled widely. These two women are transformed in Rachel Joyce's imagination into unlikely travelling partners Margery Benson and Enid Pretty, setting off for New Caledonia to discover a golden beetle that's so far been reported but never captured or catalogued.
Impulsively leaving her dull job teaching domestic science, Margery advertises for an assistant, and it's the least apparently suitable, Enid, dressed in pink with yellow candyfloss hair and pink pompom shoes, who joins her on the voyage to Brisbane. They are stalked by young ex-soldier Mundic, who records their activities obsessively and continues tracking them to the remote island of New Caledonia and the northern settlement where they rent a rickety bungalow as the base for their expeditions. Enid thinks she's the one being followed - what does she have in that red valise she always keeps close by, and what happened to the husband she left behind in London? Margery's suspicions gather, and so do those of the stuffy Consul's wife they meet on arrival at the main town.
But the growing friendship becomes vital to both women. It's the irrepressible Enid who keeps Margery going with the quest for the golden beetle when weather, circumstances and physical failings turn against them, and Margery who first humours then supports Enid in her desire to have a baby. There are many memorable moments, such as when they swim in a forest pool and Margery feels a surge of exhilaration: "She stayed, staring up at the thundering cascade of water and dark green pine clumps and, above them, the sky as blue as a piece of glass. And, just for a moment, she could have sworn she heard something inside her, groaning with pleasure ..."
Enid's distaste for killing makes it impossible for Margery to convince her that three of the golden beetles, if found, must be put into her killing jar and preserved as specimens for the Natural History Museum. For the always-practical Margery this is part of her training, although she was sickened years before by her first experience of the process: "She had screwed on the lid. But the beetle would not die quickly, as she'd expected: if flailed and sucked at the burning air, lifting its antennae, cramming its legs at the glass, calling her - or so she imagined - to stop, amazed and appalled at what she was doing after she had taken such care to lift it with her tweezers." A person who could feel and notice so much would never do that to her special golden beetle, would she?
The larger-than-life treatment lends warmth and humour. Rachel Joyce has a gift for expressing profound truths with simple directness, and Margery recognises something similar in her friend: "Sometimes Enid still surprised Margery - the way she could look into the air and come out with a piece of wisdom ..." As events escalate the search for the beetle becomes almost incidental, but several surprises await in the perfectly-judged ending.
I highly recommend Miss Benson's Beetle - and if you haven't read The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, that too is not to be missed.
Miss Benson's Beetle is published by Penguin.
Linda Newbery's This Book is Cruelty Free - Animals and Us is published by Pavilion.