Reviewed by Kim Forrester
Stories told in strong, distinctive voices using sparse, pared-back prose don’t come much better than Benjamin Myers’ Beastings, which has just been reissued by Bloomsbury.
Originally published in 2014, this simple tale is essentially a chase novel in which a priest enlists the help of a poacher to pursue a young woman who’s stolen a baby. This cat-and-mouse game occurs on foot across the wild, weather-beaten landscapes of northern England over the space of a few days.
This book reads like a thriller — it’s real heart-in-the-mouth stuff for all of its 240 pages — but it also has all the elements of a Gothic horror story: dark woods, strange noises in the night, danger at every turn and a deranged man hellbent on finding his quarry dead or alive.
When Beastings opens we know very little: only that “she” has fled a house with a “bairn”, a mercy mission to rescue the baby (and possibly herself) from an abusive man.
Over time, as she hurriedly makes her way across a rain-ravaged Cumbria, other pieces of her story begin to fall into place: that she is dumb, but not deaf; that she was raised by nuns and that when she came of age was placed with a farmer and his wife to help around the house.
Her pursuer is the priest in charge of the orphanage in which she was raised. His motivation for finding her is not as holy or as well-intentioned as he makes out. As the narrative unfolds we discover he is capable of extraordinary violence and that this does not bode well for the young woman he is trying to find.
There’s a lot to admire in this strange and beguiling tale, not least Myers’ vivid descriptions of the landscape as a living thing, often beautiful and monstrous at the same time:
The girl stood to look at the lake again which had become less silver. Now it was dark and still and she looked at the way the mountain’s fells plunged straight down into the water over at the far side without even stopping to create a shore. In places the scree dropped near-vertically into the dark waters and it scared her to think how deep it might be and what lay at the ice-cold bottom of the lake down there and how long it had been this way. The vast unknown of the water made her feel as uneasy as the solidity of the silent mountain provided comfort.
But in these wild places, the woman finds a world full of fascinating (and not always scary) elements, too. And even while she’s struggling to find food in this alien environment, she finds comfort in beauty, in birdsong, in the simple act of being able to bathe in clear, ice-cold water:
She walked around the tarn and into the trees and then sat down. It was getting dark. The trees across the tarn were becoming washed out through the twilight haze and were blurring at the edges. She watched the water and listened to the sounds of the birds getting ready to roost. She sat for a long time. She watched the sky turn and the clouds soften and the light wane then she stood and stripped to her underwear and unclothed the baby and walked into the open. She waded into the water. The cold felt like nails being driven into the soles of her feet. The girl tried to walk quickly but her feet sank into the tarn bed’s silt. It billowed up around her as she disturbed it. Turned it cloudy. It felt unctuous on her skin. Oily almost.
These evocative, almost gentle, descriptions are in stark contrast to the priest’s mission in which he becomes increasingly agitated, angry — and righteous:
All I care about is serving Him snapped the Priest. Everything I do is for Him. If I had it my way I wouldn’t have to listen to another mangled word of English from your ugly rotting mouths. If I had it my way I’d whip your stupid eyes. But such is the way of this calling. And as you yourself said you’re not a believer so why should I care about you or your gammy leg or any of your other misfortunes. You are a sinner and you are going the way of all sinners: to hell.
There’s no denying that Beastings is a rather dark and unsettling tale; there’s no wit here and little or no light relief. It plunges you into a world that feels like it’s from another century, perhaps the early 19th, but there are modern elements (electricity and telephones, for instance) which suggest it might be set in the here and now, which makes it all the more creepy.
As a suspense story, it is superb, but as a stylistic work of prose it is astonishing — there’s nary a comma in it, but that certainly doesn’t detract from its power. And the ending, when it comes, is a brutal one: I was shell-shocked for days afterwards.
This is an edited version of a review that first appeared on Kim’s blog in 2017. You can read it at https://readingmattersblog.com/2017/08/14/beastings-by-benjamin-myers/
Benjamin Myers, Beastings (Bloomsbury, London, 2019), 978-1526611215, Paperback, 240 pages.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)