Beast by Paul Kingsnorth

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Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite

Paul Kingsnorth made waves with his first novel, The Wake (2014), which was set around the Norman Conquest and written in a modified version of Old English. It became a breakout title for the crowdfunding publisher Unbound, attracting a string of prize wins and nominations. At the end of 2014, it was announced that Faber & Faber had signed Kingsnorth to write two more books that would form a thematic trilogy with The Wake, each volume to be set a thousand years after the previous one. Beast is the second part of that trilogy, bringing us to the present day.

With The Wake having such a distinctive prose style, and one so tied to the setting, my first question was: what would Beast sound like? The answer, inevitably, is that the writing is more conventional, but an incantatory quality is evident from the beginning:

Rain like this will make the streams rise so fast that they foam brown and white and roar down the combes into the valleys where the people are. And here are the stone walls and stone floors turning darker with the water, as the rain comes through the roof, and here is the stove hissing as the rain drips upon it. I am surrounded.

Readers of The Wake will recognise a few continuities: at the broader level, a focus on one man in an English landscape; at a narrower focus, the narrator’s name, Edward Buckmaster (making him a descendant of The Wake’s Buccmaster of Holland), or his sense that “something is coming”. But where Buccmaster of Holland had dedicated himself to resisting Norman rule, the impetus for Edward’s journey is something more internal.

Edward Buckmaster has left his partner and young daughter behind in the fens, travelling to the West Country in search of… well, a deeper connection – to the land, but perhaps also to the mystery of existence. He lives alone in a dilapidated farmhouse, where we first meet him in the middle of the storm described in the passage quoted above. Just as it looks as though the roof may cave in, the narrative breaks off mid-word, and there are a couple of blank pages before it resumes. This is something more than a chapter break: it represents a rewiring of the narrator’s mentality.

When we return to Edward, he is lying injured in the yard. More than that, his narration has lost its commas:

I could hardly put any weight on my left side at all though my left arm seemed to be working despite the pain. I shuffled like this I shuffled like a broken creature dragging my damaged leg behind me breathing deeply and steadily gritting my teeth moving slowly across the dark yard towards the door.

This technique gives more of a nervous edge to Edward’s voice, something that matches the greater intensity of his searching in this section. He sort-of heals by himself, then heads back out into his environment, where he ponders that sense of something greater (‘god who is the molecules and the air and the trees this forcing light this strange light roaring out’), and keeps glimpsing a mysterious creature that seems to be following him.

As Edward’s obsession grows, so his language becomes more and more debased. Eventually, he’s so focused on tracking down the beast that reality blurs into dream, and the narration is stripped to its bare bones:

i am glad that the people are gone. i don’t think i have ever seen any people  at all. there is a memory of them. now they are gone and there is no biting no climbing over there is no running from them all just to be. there is only the cloud and the wet grasses here and the sound. the sound and what is the sound.

This is where the style of Beast gets closest to The Wake, and it has the same hallucinatory quality as that earlier book. In their own individual ways, both Buccmaster of Holland and Edward Buckmaster lash out against the world and end up turning inwards… the question is: what will they find there?

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David blogs at David’s Book World.

Paul Kingsnorth, Beast (Faber & Faber, 2016). 978-0571322077, 168pp., hardback.

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