03 Aug Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce
Another rare treasure of a story from this wonderful writer!
Just like in her first book, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, author Rachel Joyce invites us on a journey, this time in the company of 46-year-old schoolteacher Margery Benson who, in 1950, walks out of her dull job (taking the deputy head’s new lacrosse boots with her) and into a whole new adventure! Once a keen amateur etymologist, she has finally decided it is time to travel across the world in quest of The Golden Beetle of New Caledonia – which may or may not even exist.
But first she needs a travelling companion, who comes in the shape of 26-year-old Enid Pretty, the best of a bad bunch that included an uptight spinster and a poor deluded ex-Japanese-prisoner-of-war.
It’s an unlikely alliance – for all her theft of the lacrosse boots, Margery is generally law-abiding, self-controlled and introspective, shaped by her upbringing by a grieving mother and two elderly aunts after her father and brothers’ tragic deaths in WWI, and broken by an unrequited love for a fellow beetle enthusiast.
She likes to do things by the book, but Enid has no such scruples. In her sugar-pink bobble suit and pom-pom mules, she forges her way through every obstacle by any means possible. She has her own dreams, and her own tragic past to escape from, and she’s determined to stick close to Margery.
And so, through many adventures by train, ship, flying boat and (stolen) jeep, the two make their way to “base camp” on the north side of the remote Pacific island of New Caledonia. So far the mountains they’ve scaled have been metaphorical – now they face a physical challenge to scale the peaks and discover the beetle of Margery’s dream.
In doing so, will they find something more important? Friendship, we hope with bated breath, as we turn the pages, but there’s something even more essential waiting to be found. For though unaware of it, each has lost her sense of true self – buried deep under layers of tragedy that must be tackled more subtly than their physical assault on their jungle surroundings.
And all the while, more tragedy stalks them in the shape of a pitiful villain, who could bring their adventures to a sad end.
I loved every single thing about this book! Latter-day Dr Dolittle Margery Benson is the perfect heroine for this wondrous and quirky tale – she epitomises everywoman, stuck in a routine, longing to break free, but afraid to wholly break the bounds of convention. Enid is the perfect foil to her often uptight behaviour – more perceptive than Margery, she’s also more willing to take risks, and there is a frisson of danger about her, hinted at in her reluctance to tell Margery much about her past, or let her see or hear any news from the UK…
The narrative is fast-paced, often funny, often poignant, always gripping. The descriptions are marvellous – from Margery’s dreary flat to the liner Orion that takes them across the ocean, to the strange wildness of New Caledonia, you’re immediately immersed in the sights, smells and sounds of the women’s surroundings, feeling the discomfort of seasickness, the stickiness of the jungle, the joy of discovery of beetles and orchids and, most importantly of all, of female friendship that neither judges nor shames.
For that is the central theme of this great story – in the end, it doesn’t even matter whether or not Margery and Enid find the elusive golden beetle. All we care about is their survival and their journey to a better happiness than they left behind at the start of their unlikely, amazing adventure.
Published by Doubleday in hardback, RRP £16.99
About the author
Rachel Joyce is the Sunday Times Best-seller of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, The Love song of Miss Queenie Hennessey and The Music Shop. Follow her on Facebook @RachelJoyceAuthor