Latest from the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is an irresistibly well-plotted tale of another epic journey, here undertaken by one Margery Benson who, at the start of the novel, is a lonely spinster teaching domestic science in grim 1950s England. Something happens, and she decides to follow her dream of travelling to the other side of the world in search of a beetle that may or may not exist. But first she must find a suitable assistant... A gorgeous story about friendship, adventure and the importance of taking risks.
Rachel Joyce is a great chronicler of journeys and quests, and the one that her protagonist Margery Benson undergoes here, travelling to New Caledonia in order to discover a hitherto unknown species of golden beetle, is as delicately and exquisitely portrayed as in her other books. Joyce takes Benson and her pink-suited friend Enid Pretty on an adventure that both amuses and stirs, and the 50s setting allows her to leaven the humour with a vein of melancholy about how the after-effects of war did not produce the emancipation many women hoped for.
While the journey of self-discovery may be predictable, Miss Benson’s Beetle is a joy of a novel, with real insight into the lives of women, the value of friendship and the lasting effects of war. “There was always darkness,” realises Margery, “and in this darkness was unspeakable suffering, and yet there were also the daily things – there was even the search for a gold beetle – and while they could not cancel the appalling horror, they were as real.”
Joyce’s sprightly adventure is a comedic, fast-moving caper that, from its prologue, signals a tenuous relationship with plausibility. The subplot where the two women are pursued by an unbalanced jilted assistant never quite convinces. But the bigger, messier themes Joyce explores about self-fulfilment and friendship do, making this a life-affirming, joyously escapist picaresque tale.
Unlike Joyce’s previous books, this wild women’s adventure story is exciting, moving and full of unexpected turns. There’s nothing twee about big, brave Marge as she changes from her sad old self into the kind of legendary female who can beat up baddies, drive a stolen truck through the night and turn her hand to some gory jungle surgery. Enid’s journey is similarly captivating as she strives to overcome a history of abuse and abandonment.
This Fifties-set latest centres on Margery Benson, an unmarried, middle-aged domestic science teacher who, after a minor work scandal, embarks on a trip halfway round the world in search of the undiscovered golden beetle that has haunted her since childhood...
While much of the novel takes place in the Southern Hemisphere, its real subject is the emotional devastation of two World Wars on the English. Like the trip, this is a bumpy ride, but worth it.
An unlikely frienship forms when Enid accompanies Margery on an expedition in search of a rare beetle that may or may not exist. A heart-warming read.