Beastings, by Benjamin Myers, is a raw and shocking tale set in the wilds of the English Lake District. The author’s prose retains its signature poetic quality but is used here to flay any notions of easy tranquility when up against nature. Characters are depicted as elemental – brutal in their determination to protect the way they live.
A teenage girl, raised by nuns in a pitiless workhouse, takes her employers’ baby and flees their home in Cumberland. She plans to cross the fells in hope of reaching the sea. The girl seeks a life away from people. Her existence to date has been one of endless abuse. She wishes to offer the child a chance of a better life than she has had to accept.
When the abduction is discovered the baby’s father turns to the town priest for help. It was the church that placed the girl in his home to help with chores his wife’s sickness prevents her from completing. The priest has personal reasons to wish the girl be found and returned to the church’s care.
The priest employs the services of a poacher and his dog to track the absconders. The poacher has heard rumours of the priest’s proclivities but has reasons of his own for helping a man with such influence. He does not expect it to take long to catch up with a young girl considered ‘a dummy’ and lacking provisions.
The story told is of the chase. Narrative switches between: the girl, those she meets, the poacher and priest. Journeying across high ground in order to avoid locals and tourists – who may have been alerted to the taking of a baby – the travellers encounter few people other than men hardened to survival in a lonely and rugged terrain.
The priest is a monstrous creation – the church at its worst. He is contemptuous of his congregation and believes he deserves the rewards he grants himself for ‘doing God’s work’. As he and the poacher traverse the fells, their conversation reveals details of the life he leads. When faced with those who will not bend to his will he responds with cold brutality.
As days pass, the girl struggles to find food for herself and the baby. She knows that she will be hunted and must keep moving if she is to succeed in getting away. Gradually, her backstory is revealed and the reader comes to understand the extent of the suffering she has faced – why she is so determined to escape. She is just one of many taken in by the church as an act of charity, used and then punished for the sin of existing.
In an era before mass tourism, the locals eke out their livings against a landscape of fearsome beauty but hard won takings. There is a poverty of expectation in communities where choice is limited by economics and location.
“I do believe killing is bad.
The Priest raised his head from the fire and looked at him.
Yet you kill animals every day.
They’re just animals.
And humans aren’t?
Some of them are pests Father.
So are some humans.”
This story is not for the faint-hearted. It is tense and engaging but filled with horror and hate filled individuals who think nothing of violating others knowing they will get away with it. It is also quite brilliant in the way it remorselessly evokes the time and place.
A succinct and skilful rendition of base behaviour in a bleak yet awe inspiring landscape.
Originally released by Bluemoose Books, Beastings is now published by Bloomsbury.