‘Miss Benson's Beetle,’ by Rachel Joyce. TNS
Gulf Today Report
"Miss Benson's Beetle," Rachel Joyce’s latest novel, starts out in black and white and then opens up into glorious Technicolor.
The year is 1950. World War II is over but a pall of gloom hangs over England, with food and goods still rationed and everybody ground down.
Middle-aged schoolteacher Margery Benson is seen loathing her dreary life. She pictures herself as "a beetle in a killing jar, dying slowly."
She reaches a breaking point when her students pass around a mocking cartoon depicting her as a dumpy woman with a nose like a potato and feet like planks.
She walks out of the classroom, inexplicably steals a fire extinguisher and a pair of boots from the teachers' lounge, gets on a bus, and heads off into a new life.
Many of Joyce's protagonists are middle-aged, unhappy characters, good people leading banal lives, who hide intense pain.
They recklessly plunge into some kind of irrational but liberating behaviour — often, some sort of quest.
"Miss Benson's Beetle" follows this pattern in a general way, but it feels larger than Joyce's other books — more expansive, swashbuckling, a wild adventure.
It is the best so far of her novels, and the most inspiring.
As a girl, the last bright moment in Margery Benson's life was the afternoon her gentle father introduced her to a book of amazing creatures — the Loch Ness Monster, the South African quagga, the golden beetle of New Caledonia.
At the sight of the beetle, "her insides gave a lurch. ... It was as if Nature had taken a bit of jewelry and made an insect instead."
And so on the day that she steals the boots, Margery decides the hell with the domestic sciences; she will sail to New Caledonia and find that beetle.
It's a preposterous idea. Not only is the journey long and dangerous but the beetle most likely doesn't exist.
But off she goes, with a paid companion she finds through the classified ads. Enid Pretty is feisty and tough, a blond woman in high-heeled boots who irritates Miss Benson by calling her "Marge."
Somewhere along the way, Enid acquires a dog, which strains their relationship even more.
At the heart of the story is the slow, unlikely friendship that builds between the two women and how that friendship enables them both to grow stronger, more capable and more self-reliant.
The closer Margery and Enid get to their goals, the tougher the obstacles. There is violence, there are harrowing scenes.
The ending is not pat, nor fully happy. But it is hopeful. There is resilience, there is redemption, and there is beauty — great beauty. In Technicolor.
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