Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 25, 2021

Miss Benson’s Beetle, by Rachel Joyce

This is a book that I bought last year sight unseen on Love Your Bookshop Day during Melbourne’s long Lockdown. It turned out to be a marvellous quirky story and I enjoyed it as an escapist read after so many serious books!

It’s also the only book I’ve ever read that’s set in New Caledonia.  It’s an ‘odd couple’ story where two very mismatched people discover each other under very trying circumstances.

Middle-aged Margery Benson has had an awful life.  Her father shot himself when all four of her brothers were killed in World War I and the rest of her childhood was spent with her grieving mother, two sour old aunts, and a cantankerous servant called Barbara.  Her love of entomology (the study of insects) led her into years of a relationship going nowhere, and then she drifted into teaching.

She finally snaps after she becomes the subject of overt mockery at her school, and she decides to spend her (not very great) inheritance on a long-held ambition to find the Golden Beetle of New Caledonia.  Which may or may not exist…

She advertises for an assistant and through a series of mishaps ends up with Enid Pretty, a bottle-blonde who is almost illiterate and tiresomely ditzy.  She is entirely unsuitable but there is no one else available at short notice.

What Margery doesn’t know is that not only is she being stalked on her expedition by a crazed ex POW with PTSD because of his experiences on the Burma Railway, but also that Enid has A Dark Secret necessitating a speedy departure from Britain.  Enid also has a remarkable talent for (a-hem) ‘acquiring’ essential equipment when Margery’s specimen collecting gear gets lost along with her luggage.  She (a-hem) ‘gets hold of’ a jeep too, not that it’s any use on the terrible roads or the path that has to be hacked out of the rainforest on the way to the top of the mountain.

Rachel Joyce has a droll style:

Enid went with terrifying speed for a woman who had once been an ambulance driver.  Even if people had felt well when they got into her ambulance, they must have felt very sick by the time they got out of it.  And it was worse when she talked: she seemed to forget she was driving.  Margery tried to object but got a mouthful of grit and dust.  Meanwhile Mr Rawlings [a dog that Enid has also ‘acquired’] scrambled from the back seat into her lap, still quite orange and nervous from the first trip, and now trembling uncontrollably.

‘Enid,’ she managed to say,’ Enid.  This is too fast.’

‘You should close your eyes!’ yelled Enid.  ‘Get some rest!’

Margery could not have closed her eyes if she’d been drugged. (p.155)

But this author also understands the poignant side of human nature.  This is Margery’s existential moment:

It had been the most awful night of her life.  The gap between making a plan and actually doing it was unbridgeable: nothing Professor Smith had taught her had prepared her for this.  Nothing she’d read had prepared her either.  She was covered in insect bites — they had even got inside her ears.  She was soaking wet, possibly rotting, and she felt wrung out from lack of sleep.  Worse, her body had seized up.  The only way to get out of the hammock would be by extending herself in segments, like a foot rule.  She had no idea how she would walk another step.  Already she knew she was in something she was not made for.

She thought of the British wives at the consulate party listing everything they missed from home.  Branston pickle, grey drizzle, perfect English grass.  They were right.  Faced with the rainforest, she felt desolate.  Back at home she had a flat with a bed in it, clean sheets, and a nice bedside lamp.  She missed streetlights, windows, curtains, roads with proper names.  Rationing was better than this.  And even though her aunts had taught her it was wrong to cry — even though she hadn’t done so at her mother’s funeral — a million tiny dots seemed to prickle her nose, culminating in a salty rush as tears filled her eyes.  She hadn’t a clue why she was lying in a hammock on the other side of the world, already half crippled, looking for a beetle that had never been found — she could die out here, under these alien stars, and no one would ever know.  She thought of her father, her mother, her brothers.  She thought of the professor, Barbara and her aunts. And the more she thought about the people she’d lost, the more she wanted them back.  Her crying wasn’t about missing home any more.  It wasn’t about Branston pickle, or green grass, and roads with proper names. It was about something else.  It had been with her ever since her father had walked out of his French windows and left her behind.  You might travel to the other side of the world, but in the end it made no difference: whatever devastating unhappiness was inside you would come too.  (p,198)

The unexpected ending is not the sentimental one you might be expecting, but Miss Benson’s Beetle is still a beaut choice for Book Clubs looking for a quirky story.

Author: Rachel Joyce
Title: Miss Benson’s Beetle
Publisher: Penguin UK, 2020
ISBN: 9780857521996, pbk., 388 pages
Source: Benn’s Bookshop Bentleigh

 


Responses

  1. This sounds good. Might put it on my list……my never ending list🐧😜😜

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL a different kind of travel book!

      Like

  2. I’ve just finished this too! Like you, I enjoyed the escapism.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was fascinating reading about New Caledonia in the postwar period. We went there on Holiday a couple of years ago, and it bore no resemblance to what was in the book.
      (LOL Except maybe for the cocktails that the British wives were drinking.)

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Whoops, meant to say escape. I felt as if I’d had a holiday from real life once I finished.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m a Rachel Joyce addict, and I’ve read everything she’s ever written. This did NOT disappoint!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I’ll keep an eye out for her titles at he library:)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sounds very entertaining, Lisa!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh I thoroughly enjoyed this one, I really liked that odd couple element. Definitely great escapism.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it works really well in this book. We see it all from Margery’s PoV not Enid’s, which adds to the humour.

      Like

  7. I enjoyed this one too, Lisa. I really loved the developing friendship between Margery and Enid. So nice to see friendship as a focus, rather than the traditional romance trope. And so many laughs too. Will have to keep an eye open for more titles by Rachel Joyce.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely. I also like the complementary skills that emerged between the two of them. That scene where Enid realises that Margery has not ever actually trialled setting up a tent—what would be me, for sure!

      Liked by 2 people

  8. This is one where each time I read a review I think it sounds great – then I forget all about it! Hopefully your post will make it stick now and I’ll actually pick up a copy. I really like stories about friendship and this sounds different.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, the good thing is, the cover is so bright, you won’t miss it if it turns up at your library!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I see her books quite often but have never felt pulled to try one, although I do keenly appreciate what you’re saying, about the need for some “lighter” reading (especially given the intersection in my current reading projects). Somehow I’ve felt they would be a little too predictably sentimental? But I like an odd-couple story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, trust me, my antennae twitch at the slightest sign of sentimentality. I did think for a moment that we were heading for ‘lurv’ but no, it doesn’t happen!

      Like


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