It is 1950. In a devastating moment of clarity, Margery Benson abandons her dead-end job and advertises for an assistant to accompany her on an expedition. She is going to travel to the other side of the world to search for a beetle that may or may not exist.
Enid Pretty, in her unlikely pink travel suit, is not the companion Margery had in mind. And yet together they will be drawn into an adventure that will exceed every expectation. They will risk everything, break all the rules, and at the top of a red mountain, discover their best selves.
This is a story that is less about what can be found than the belief it might be found; it is an intoxicating adventure story but it is also about what it means to be a woman and a tender exploration of a friendship that defies all boundaries.
Rachel Joyce writes fantastic characters, and Margery Benson is one of those that you just can’t help but love. Margery is 47 and works as a teacher, but after one torment too many from the pupils at the school, she impulsively steals a pair of boots from the deputy head and decides to travel to New Caledonia in search of a beetle that may or may not exist. It’s a madcap scheme and the reader knows – even from the first few pages – how utterly out of character this is, and yet I immediately wanted her to succeed in her quest. To say that the odds are against her doesn’t even begin to cover it, and yet both Margery and the reader cling on to that small element of hope that she will find what she’s looking for.
Part of this comes from what we know about Margery’s life. She comes across as someone who has experienced very little joy in her life, beginning with the death of her four brothers in the war followed shortly by her father when she was ten years old. Raised by a distraught mother and two severe aunts, Margery never fully dealt with her grief, nor did she get the attention that a girl and then young woman needs and deserves. As an adult, she is socially awkward, and yet she has so much to give, held back by both society’s conventions and a lack of confidence. The time in which the novel is set suggested to me that she would have achieved more had she not been born female – something that is equally frustrating for both Margery and the reader. I loved her determination to pursue her goal regardless of the circumstances, propriety be damned.
While Margery makes the impulsive decision to follow a dream, she’s fully aware that she can’t do it alone. She advertises for a companion, eventually settling – not by choice – on Enid Pretty. I love the contrast between these two characters. Enid is petite to Margery’s larger build, outgoing and confident where Margery is reticent. Enid has clearly already lived quite a life despite her youth, while there’s a sense of Margery having not lived at all. While the reader knows a great deal about Margery, Enid’s past is decidedly murky – she’s very quick to dodge questions about herself, and skilfully diverts attention elsewhere when necessary. It raises some questions as to what she’s hiding, and I enjoyed learning more about her as the novel progressed. Enid adds an element of mystery to the novel, particularly as she seems as equally unsuited to this mission as Margery is – the one thing they do have in common – yet proves to have an extremely useful and unique set of skills. What I particularly like about Enid is that she comes across as being little more than a “blonde bombshell” when we first meet her, and yet quickly proves to be so much more than that.
Their journey is long and complicated, as they face weeks at sea travelling to Australia, and then the journey to New Caledonia itself. And when they get there, they have no shortage of issues to face in terms of obtaining Visas and travel permits, supplies, the weather, not to mention their ever-dwindling funds. Plus, there’s Mr Mundic – an applicant for the role of Margery’s assistant, quickly rejected, who becomes obsessed with Margery and follows her to New Caledonia, causing plenty of trouble on the way. There are a small number of chapters told from his perspective, and this adds a slightly creepy tone to the novel as he follows the two ladies across the world. He’s a troubled soul, and while I think that I should have felt sorry for him, I didn’t. I just couldn’t quite bring myself to sympathise with him as his actions strayed beyond creepy into obsessive and he becomes increasingly deluded. He does add a wonderful note of tension to the novel, however – he’s a necessary character, but one that I couldn’t bring myself to care for.
Miss Benson’s Beetle is a fantastic novel about friendship and the pursuit of a dream. And while it is ostensibly about finding a small golden beetle, both Margery and Enid find so much more than they expected – it’s a novel that is as much about self-discovery as it is about entomology. It’s a wonderful, joyous novel, and one that I can’t recommend enough, whether you’re an existing fan of Joyce’s work or completely new to the author.
Miss Benson’s Beetle will be published on 23 July by Doubleday. Many thanks to the publisher and Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for the early copy and the opportunity to take part in the blog tour.
About the Author
Rachel Joyce is the author of the Sunday Times and international bestsellers The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Perfect, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, The Music Shop and a collection of interlinked short stories, A Snow Garden & Other Stories. Her books have been translated into thirty-six languages and two are in development for film.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book prize and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Rachel was awarded the Specsavers National Book Awards ‘New Writer of the Year’ in December 2012 and shortlisted for the ‘UK Author of the Year’ 2014. Rachel was a Costa prize judge and University Big Read author in 2019.
She has also written over twenty original afternoon plays and adaptations of the classics for BBC Radio 4,
including all the Bronte novels. She moved to writing after a long career as an actor, performing leading roles
for the RSC, the National Theatre and Cheek by Jowl. She lives with her family in Gloucestershire.
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