Book Review: Miss Benson’s Beetle

This latest novel from Rachel Joyce is a gem. While I have enjoyed all her books that I have read – especially The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryMiss Benson’s Beetle is special. It is a story of grief, friendship, and the bravery a woman must muster if she is to lead rather than follow – the rewards of trying, whatever the obstacles faced.

The two main protagonists are recognisable and perhaps not initially admirable. They are developed into cracking creations.

Miss Margery Benson is a schoolteacher in her forties who carries a weight of heartache she has learned to suppress. The book opens in 1914 when, as a ten year old, Margery’s father shows her a picture of a golden beetle rumoured to exist in New Caledonia – a French territory comprising dozens of islands in the South Pacific. In that moment, something is awakened in the child that will develop into an interest in entomology. Before this can happen, her life is changed forever. A shocking event results in her leaving the rectory – the home she shared with her parents and older brothers – and going to live with two maiden aunts in their mansion flat in Kensington.

The timeline jumps forward to 1950. London has been scarred by wartime bombing raids. Rationing remains in place resulting in a grey and restricted existence. When Miss Benson’s pupils openly mock their lumpy and worn teacher during a lesson, something in her breaks. Hurt and angry, she reacts in a way she cannot explain, even to herself.

Unable to return to her teaching job, and aware that her life is somehow now empty of family and friends, Margery decides to follow what was once her dream. She will travel to New Caledonia and seek out the golden beetle, bringing proof of its existence back to the Natural History Museum. She advertises for an assistance and makes plans for an entomological expedition. The brash young woman she ends up travelling with, Enid Pretty, is not who Margery envisaged as her companion and helper. Unbeknown to both of them, a stalker is also making the journey to the remote archipelago.

The unfolding tale is beautifully structured and consistently engaging. There is humour in abundance as the women find ways to cope with an adventure neither of them is fully prepared for. The strength of the writing lies in the character portrayals – not just the main protagonists but everyone they encounter, and their varying reactions to the women. With the lightest of touches, the author adds depth and emotional resonance.

Woven in are several interlinked threads. These include: a murder mystery; a love story; snapshots of the expatriate British. Neither Margery nor Enid speak French – the modern language on the islands. They must be resourceful and determined if they are to have any hope of completing their dual quests.

The longest sections of the book cover the journey from England to Australia and then the women’s mountain odyssey in Poum. Their manifest differences come close to derailing the expedition yet also prove vital when differing skills are required to deal with unexpected challenges. The friendship gradually formed leads to heightened self-awareness as well as valued kinship. Hardships faced together create a bond neither anticipated.

The denouement is set in 1983 and is imaginatively rendered. This short section satisfactorily rounds off what is a wide ranging, poignant yet entertaining tale that will linger.

Miss Benson’s Beetle offered me even more breadth and gratification than expected. This is storytelling at its best.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.