It’s an absolute delight today to be joining the blog tour and sharing my review of Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce: published by Doubleday on 23rd July, it’s now available in hardback, as an e-book, and as an audiobook. If you prefer a paperback, you’ll need to wait until April next year – go on, just look at that cover, treat yourself to the hardback! My thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for the invitation and support, and to the publishers for my advance reading e-copy (provided via netgalley).
I can’t tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to this book. Well, actually, maybe I can. Whenever anyone asks me to name my all-time favourite book, I always struggle to choose – but I do have a short list, and it would always include Rachel Joyce’s last book, The Music Shop. You’ll find my review here, and my goodness, it was wonderful – tender and moving, beautifully written, and it left me with both a smile and an ache around the heart that the story had to end. I still haven’t read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (I know, I know…), but I have read Perfect – once under my own steam, and a second time with my book group (they loved it) – and I thoroughly enjoyed that one too (you can read my 2013 review here). Rachel Joyce writes the kind of books I love to read… and that’s why I couldn’t wait to sit down with this one.
It is 1950, two unlikely women set off on a hare-brained adventure to the other side of the world to try and find a beetle, and in doing so discover friendship and how to be their best of themselves.
This is quintessential Joyce: at once poignant and playful, with huge heart and the same resonance, truth and lightness of touch as her phenomenally successful debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.
Britain, post Second World War. In a moment of madness Margery Benson abandons her sensible job and advertises for an assistant to accompany her on an expedition. She is going to travel to the other side of the world to search for a beetle that may or may not exist.
Enid Pretty, in pink hat and pompom sandals, is not the companion she had in mind. But together they will find themselves drawn into an adventure that exceeds all expectations. They must risk everything, break all the rules, but at the top of a red mountain they will discover who they truly are, and how to be the best of themselves.
This is a novel that is less about what can be found than the belief it might be found; it is an intoxicating adventure story but it is also about what it means to be a woman and a tender exploration of a friendship that defies all boundaries.
It’s the second time within a month that I need to say how much more difficult it is to write a review when you finish reading a book you really love (lest you wonder, the last time was my review of Julie Cohen’s Spirited). My reading time’s been severely limited this week, my concentration levels all over the place, and it’s taken me an unheard of five days to read this wonderful book from cover to cover – but it has entirely consumed me, whisked me away from day-to-day realities every time I was able to pick it up (and it remained in my thoughts when I couldn’t), and I thought it was simply wonderful.
Two ill-matched companions travelling to New Caledonia in search of an undiscovered beetle might not – on the face of it – sound particularly promising as a subject. But in the hands of a writer like Rachel Joyce, it becomes entirely enthralling.
The characterisation in this book is quite magnificent. First there’s Margery – and we learn both about her solitary upbringing, her introduction to the world of entomology, the moments of trauma and disappointment in her past that saw her settle for the humdrum and unassuming life of a domestic science teacher. She’s both large and awkward, drab and grey, a bit intolerant, going through the motions of living – until, one day, a series of triggers make her decide to follow her dream.
But she needs an assistant – and Enid Pretty isn’t initially the one she wants or needs. Their meeting on a station – at the very start of their adventure – is entirely unforgettable, Margery in her purloined boots and pith helmet, Enid in her pink travelling suit and shoes with pompoms and mountain of luggage (and clutching her mysterious red valise). Margery needed an assistant who spoke French, and Enid’s linguistic skills don’t extend beyond “bon chour” – but my goodness, she certainly turns out to have a range of sometimes dubious skills that prove invaluable when things become difficult.
And while we’re talking about characters, there are so many others brought to life so vividly within this book’s pages – some providing diversion, some bringing threat and danger, others surprising with acts of kindness that have an immense impact on the lives of the two main characters.
The enchantment of the book comes, I think, from two main things. First, there’s the setting and backdrop – the journey by ship to Australia, the flying boat to New Caledonia, the colonial shenanigans when they arrive, then their fight to survive in the wilds of the north of the island. The descriptions of the challenging environment they find are just stunning – it’s inhospitable for two such ill-equipped women, threatening and hostile, but also filled with beauty, with moments that fill you with joy and sometimes take your breath away.
And then there’s the relationship between the two women, as irritation and anger gives way to love and affection, their secret pasts laid bare as they change and grow together. Emotionally, the whole shared experience is absolutely exceptional – glorious and deeply affecting, with so many moments that impacted me deeply and moved me to tears.
But there’s also a lot of well-judged humour in this book too – it seems a little rude to call it “quirky”, but I think I really must. But the way the balance is maintained, the way you find yourself willing these two exceptional women on, the way they find strengths they had no idea they possessed, the way the story grips you, the way some of the smallest details strike you to the heart… the writing is sublime, a writer at the height of her powers, and I loved every single moment.
About the author
Rachel Joyce is the author of the Sunday Times and international bestsellers The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Perfect, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, The Music Shop and a collection of interlinked short stories, A Snow Garden & Other Stories. Her books have been translated into thirty-six languages and two are in development for film.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book prize and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Rachel was awarded the Specsavers National Book Awards ‘New Writer of the Year’ in December 2012 and shortlisted for the ‘UK Author of the Year’ 2014. Rachel was a Costa prize judge and University Big Read author in 2019.
She has also written over twenty original afternoon plays and adaptations of the classics for BBC Radio 4, including all the Bronte novels. She moved to writing after a long career as an actor, performing leading roles for the RSC, the National Theatre and Cheek by Jowl. She lives with her family in Gloucestershire.