Reviewed by Heavenali
Miss Benson’s Beetle is Rachel Joyce’s latest novel – now published in paperback. Women are at the heart of this wonderful story – and we see the ways that two world wars have shaped two women of different generations.
The novel opens in 1914 with the child Margery learning about beetles from her father. In 1950 a middle aged Margery Benson is teaching home economics not very successfully to girls she is really rather afraid of. One very bad day is all it takes for Miss Benson to walk out of her horrible job and take up again the great passion instilled in her by her father, beetles, and more particularly The Golden Beetle of New Caledonia – a beetle which may or may not exist.
Years ago, Margery had collected things that reminded her of what she loved, and kept her true. A beetle necklace, a map of New Caledonia, an illustrated pocket guide to the islands by the Reverend Horace Blake. She’d made important discoveries about the beetle: its possible size, shape and habitat. She’d made plans. But suddenly she’d stopped. Or rather, life had. Life had stopped.
Now Margery Benson is forty-six. The First World War took her older brothers, and as a child she was surrounded by aunts whose chances of marriage had ended with that conflict. Now she has become like those women of that earlier generation, invisible and with little purpose. She remains haunted by something she never really understood, which happened in 1914. Now she is determined to set out on an expedition to the other side of the world, to find the Golden Beetle of New Caledonia in memory of her beloved father. She advertises in the newspaper for an assistant to accompany her on her expedition.
Margery does not get many applicants, and when those who at first appear to be the most suitable are either revealed as not being or let her down at the last minute, the only one left is Enid Pretty. Enid Pretty is anything but suitable.
…the short woman tottered across the concourse, her luggage so heavy she could only wave at Margery with her foot. Her hair was a stiff puff with the perky hat pinned on top: about as useful in terms of sun protection as a beer mat on her head. She wore a bright pink two-piece travel suit that accentuated her round bust and hips, tiny sandals with a pompom at the toe, and her nails were painted like juicy sweets. A blonde bombshell, twenty-five if she was a day, and Margery was old enough to be, if not her mother, then at least her maiden aunt.
Enid Pretty is an attractive, blonde twenty-something in a bright pink travel suit with a lot of unwieldy luggage. She talks nineteen to the dozen about anything and everything is unceasingly optimistic, loves babies, and is enormously kind-hearted. She is definitely not the kind of assistant Margery has envisioned. She also thinks nothing of bribing her way on to the ship when her passport cannot be found. It is all a rather inauspicious start for two women who could not be more different and who will be spending months together in the rainforest of New Caledonia.
There is nothing to be done but start out on a journey which is long and gruelling. Margery is horribly seasick; Enid cheerfully takes care of her. During these long days at sea, Enid encourages Margery to tell her about the beetle – she is like a child asking for a favourite story over and over – eager to learn and proud of their quest. Sometimes though, Enid has the distinct impression that someone is watching her. The relationship between the two women is an uneasy one for the majority of their journey – Margery hardly knows a thing about Enid Pretty – but once they land in Australia Margery begins to realise that she rather likes having Enid around. The final leg of their journey takes them from Australia to the island of New Caledonia – but their adventures have really only just begun.
Alongside Margery and Enid who are wonderfully memorable characters – we encounter a group of spiteful ex-pats and a sinister, war veteran traumatised by his treatment in a Japanese POW camp.
In time we come to learn more about Margery and Enid, as bit by bit they open up a little to one another. Two unremarkable, forgotten women, who working together, taking risks and breaking rules discover real friendship while each pursuing their own dream.
Rachel Joyce has a real understanding of small, sad lives and of what it might be like to step outside them. She understands loss and heartache and portrays those disappointments that are encountered in a way that is always relatable. There is so much in this novel that is exhilarating and joyful – it somehow captures that wide eyed wonder we all maybe had in childhood for something magical or simply breath-takingly fascinating. It is a celebration of the strength of female friendship and the pursuit of a dream – it is also deeply poignant, beautifully written, and instantly memorable.
Ali blogs at Heavenali.
Rachel Joyce, Miss Benson’s Beetle, (Black Swan, 2021). 978-0552779487, 304 pp., paperback.
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