July 2014

Ben Ashwell

fiction

Beastings by Benjamin Myers

To write about Beastings is to write about silence. Benjamin Myers's latest novel has a small central cast of uncommunicative characters: a mute teenage girl, a baby, a determined priest, and a disgruntled poacher. It is an achievement, then, on Myers's part, to have created such a strong voice that runs through the novel as the bedrock for the action. In this case the narrative comes from the English countryside, which is increasingly becoming Myers's arena for drama. As the group of disgruntled characters traipse up hillsides, through thick woodlands, and across streams and valleys, there are moments of immediacy, akin to standing amongst the shrubs and the mud and the bees and the streams in the Lake District. I wrote last year, as part of an interview with Myers for Bookslut, that he was increasingly choosing to elevate the countryside above the setting of a traditional pastoral story, and he ups his game again here. Simply put, the countryside steals the show.

But that is not to detract from what is a compelling and intriguing plot. We meet our protagonist, a young girl in the middle of a stormy night, with sideways rain crashing into her hunched figure. She is creeping softly away from the house of the family she serves, cradling their baby to her chest to silence it. Head bowed, she is determined to put as much distance between herself and the town in which she was raised before sunrise. She has plenty to run away from: vague memories of her parents who were "a storm rolling over the tops," the Sisters of the Church who took her in but never welcomed her, the unloving and ungracious family she serves, and the priest with too many secrets to preserve. The girl feels a profound sense of ownership for the baby -- she has visions of escaping to a new land by boat and raising the child as her own -- but beyond that, she sees a chance to define her future. She cannot speak and makes no effort to communicate when she does meet people. We have no way of knowing how she behaved before she escaped, but there is no question that with her newfound purpose she has changed; she is a feral beast with little regard for anything other than the baby and the priest, who she knows is lurking somewhere behind her.

As much as she tries to escape from him, the priest is a part of her life. He raised her and holds himself accountable for her actions. He will not tolerate one of his girls smearing his fragile reputation -- and even if the girl can't talk, she knows his perversions too well to risk being left alone. The priest recruits a poacher for the journey, a drunk, crippled man with a large hunting dog. The poacher is good-humored and more perceptive than he lets on.

And so begins a deadly game of cat and mouse across the Lake District. Both parties are severely underprepared -- the young girl relies on foraging food for her and the baby, the poacher rations his scraps, and the priest energizes himself by regularly inhaling doses of a strange white powder (tellingly provided by Burroughs, Welcome, & Co). It is clear from the start that this manhunt isn't going to end well for anyone, but that doesn't stop everybody from pressing further into the wilderness.

In his previous novel, Pig Iron, and during the latter stages of his second novel Richard, Myers honed in on a distinctive style. Beastings represents a further distillation of his style. The novel is full of Biblical references, but there is no sign of New Testament Christianity here. Beastings is water into blood, plague of locusts material. The characters have committed atrocious acts, some of which the reader sees, but their brutality and single-mindedness is dwarfed by the violent indifference of the countryside.

There are moments in which the action stutters slightly (it is realistic for characters to take breaks and shelter from storms, but it doesn't always make great reading), but the frustration the reader feels is more appropriately directed toward the characters for their poor preparation, rather than at the author.

The opening chapter of Beastings won the Northern Writer's Award in the United Kingdom last year, which is unsurprising considering the amount of tension that is crammed into the opening pages. For most part, the novel keeps its hand around your throat, dragging you backward through the overgrowth it depicts. By the time you finish the book, you'll feel simultaneously compelled to visit the Lake District and terrified by the idea.

Beastings by Benjamin Myers
Bluemoose Books, Ltd.
ISBN: 978-0992791933
280 pages