Most books remind you of something else and that comparison becomes starting point for your response. Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce is unlike anything I’ve ever read and it was the startling originality and quirkiness which got me – hook, line and sinker.
Published in 2020, it’s a quest novel like The Odyssey, The Wizard of Oz, Watership Down and Joyce’s earlier The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012). But beyond that structure Miss Benson’s Beetle (isn’t Joyce good at titles?) has a flavour all of its own.
Margery Benson is the daughter of a rector who shows her some pictures of “incredible creatures” in one of the books in his study. After his mysterious, sudden death in 1914 she is forever haunted by her loss and by the idea of a rare golden beetle on the other side of the world in New Caledonia. Fast forward three decades and Miss Benson is a frumpy domestic science teacher in a girls’ school where she is a frustrated misfit with discipline problems – until she flips. “Beetles she understood. It was people who had become strange.”
Some might call it a midlife crisis. Others would declare it a feminist break for freedom when Miss Benson, suddenly unemployed, sells everything she has, advertises for an assistant, and plans to travel to New Caledonia to find the beetle. Whichever way you look at it her scheme is manically bonkers and I love the image of her packing her Izal toilet paper, a second hand pith helmet shaped like a cake tin and awaiting her assistant at Fenchurch Street Station “holding her insect net like an oversized lollipop”. Joyce’s style is both tender and witty.
The assistant – Enid Pretty – is about the most unsuitable person imaginable for this role. She is florid, forthright, eccentric, sparing with the truth, seriously dyslexic and brings with her (no spoilers) a pretty major issue which … err … changes the dynamic between her and Miss Benson dramatically once they arrive in the sensuously evoked Indonesian jungle after their long sea voyage. But Joyce subtitles this glorious novel – in the manner of the Victorian books Miss Benson has grown up with – “An uplifting and redemptive story of a glorious female friendship against the odds” and that’s exactly what it is. It’s a crazily unlikely pairing but in the end each woman saves the other at many levels.
And in the background to all this there’s another person trying to influence events. The reader knows he’s there but for a long time Miss Benson and Enid do not. And that’s neatly done too.
I think Miss Benson’s Beetle was probably the best new novel I read in 2020. I hope someone has snapped up the film rights because it could be sensationally colourful, full of warmth and wit. Imelda Staunton for Miss Benson and Jodie Comer for Enid, please.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Middlemarch by George Eliot