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.

Book Review: The Music Shop

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Rachel Joyce, an author in the vein of Joanna Cannon and Sarah Winman, has a knack of succinctly capturing the minutiae of everyday behaviours with piercing insight. In just a few words she paints an image of an attitude, action or expression that conveys more than mere description. Her characters are not just brought to life on the page, they become close acquaintances, the reader investing in their outcomes, feeling their joys and pain.

This latest work opens in January 1988, in a town that is changing under Thatcher’s Britain. The unnamed music shop is a relic of the old. It is located in a rundown side street – a row of tatty shops and their upstairs flats along one side; houses, many divided and sublet, on the other. The shop owners live above their businesses. They are an integral part of a small community.

The music shop is run by Frank and his assistant, the accident prone Kit. They sell vinyl records, eschewing cassettes and the newly popular CDs. Frank’s modus operandi is to tell his customers what music they need to listen to, something he somehow feels from their presence. He enjoys helping others but keeps himself emotionally distant, afraid of being hurt again.

Frank’s sheltered little world is threatened by encroaching gentrification, and by the arrival of a mysterious woman who faints outside his shop window one afternoon. When Ilse Brauchmann returns to thank Frank for his help he realises he may be smitten. It is almost a relief when he discovers she is unavailable as she is already engaged.

The story is interspersed with flashbacks to Frank’s childhood. He was raised by his single mother, a wealthy and Bohemian woman who insisted that her son call her Peg, refusing to act as expected or conform to anything ordinary. Peg entertained a string of boyfriends but her true love was music. She shared her knowledge and passion with her son, but offered him little else.

Ilse asks Frank to teach her about music with lessons to be given once a week. Using the stories his mother told he opens up to this enigmatic stranger. Alongside their burgeoning friendship, Frank and the other residents of Unity Street are being wooed by property developers. When they refuse the financial incentives, threats are made.

The character development is astute and often humorous but the plot arc lacked sufficient depth to keep me fully engaged. Although billed as a love story this aspect felt contrived in places. The strength of the writing is in the quiet observations of people, and in the music – its emotional impact and the anecdotes shared. Those with Spotify can listen to The Music Shop playlist, an eclectic mix with links explained throughout the tale.

Any Cop?: Despite my reservations there is enough pleasure to be derived to make this a book worth reading. It is a gentle, hopeful story. The resurgence in popularity of vinyl and the decline of CDs provides a fitting coda.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy

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The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, by Rachel Joyce, is a companion story to the author’s best selling debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. It tells the story of the woman Harold Fry was walking to, from her point of view.

At the beginning of both books we learn that Queenie has cancer and is in a hospice in Berwick on Tweed. As Harold walks from Devon to Northumberland she embarks on a journey of her own, composing a letter to confess to him the part she played in his son’s life twenty years ago and of which he is unaware. She has carried the guilt from her actions for two decades and wishes to ask his forgiveness.

In writing her letter Queenie tells of her childhood and how she came to work in the Kingsbridge brewery where she met Harold. She goes over the small details of their interactions, but also offers the reader glimpses of the life she led outside of work. She loved to dance, and to observe the beauty of the world around her. She was lonely and suffered unrequited love, finding ways to get through her days with music and books.

Alongside her reminiscences are details of her current life in the hospice. Despite being populated by the dying there is much humour and optimism amongst the residents who form a fabulous supporting cast for this tale. Knowing that they have little time left to live they take pleasure in the minutae of their experiences, thereby offering lessons for us all.

The imagery brings to life the beauty of the gardens, the coast, and the changing landscape of weather and season. Life is what is happening now; it is the little experiences that should be appreciated.

I found the story less compelling than that of Harold, although it added welcome new depth to his tale. As I knew the bones of the story from having read its companion this was perhaps to be expected. The sumptuous prose ensured that it was still a pleasure to read.

The denouement was unexpected and moving. Despite being a background character in so many people’s lives, Queenie comes across as strong as well as intelligent. How her life turned out may not have been ideal but few people can lay claim to that whatever path they take.

A lovely book that I enjoyed reading, and a must for fans of Harold Fry. I felt this book gave both characters closure and am happy to have made their acquaintance.

 

Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, is a road trip story with a difference. The protagonist is sixty-five years old and is travelling on foot. Although his journey teaches him a great deal about himself, others and life, the lessons learned by those he leaves behind are at least as powerful. This is a story of loss, and of the particular loneliness experienced by those who build walls around their emotions.

Harold Fry has been retired for six months and rarely goes out. He worked the same job for forty-five years but has few friends. His wife spends her days cleaning their already clean house and finding reasons to berate him. His days stretch before him with little purpose.

Into this sterile world arrives a letter from a former work colleague, Queenie Hennessy, who Harold has neither seen nor heard from in twenty years. He learns that Queenie is in a hospice with terminal cancer. Unsure how to respond, he pens a brief reply and sets out to post it. When he reaches the post box at the end of his quiet, residential road he keeps on walking.

Harold has no plan and cannot explain his actions, even to himself. A chance encounter with a young cashier at a garage where he stops for food places the seed of an idea into his head. Rather than go home he decides that he must continue to walk, from Devon to Berwick, a journey of over five hundred miles. He will reunite with Queenie and somehow keep her alive. He is wearing yacht shoes, his usual shirt and tie; he has his wallet but no provisions and no phone.

As he walks Harold mulls over his life. He has many regrets but also imponderables over how he could have engineered more favourable outcomes. As well as this self analysis he starts to appreciate his surroundings, to which he had previously paid little attention. He encounters strangers and starts to listen to their stories.

Harold’s wife, Maureen, is left to come to terms with her husband’s inexplicable behaviour. She first feels anger and then bereft. A lifetime of not talking about how they feel prevents meaningful communication. Each must find their own way forward, one step at a time and alone.

This is a poignant and beautifully told tale. Harold and Maureen are recognisable to anyone who knows people of this age. How they are seen by others matters to them yet has stifled their potential. Their journeys are both physical and metaphorical.

I loved the language and imagery, how ordinary the cast of characters felt in what is an extraordinary tale. Those who helped along the way offered hope in a society that can seem so flawed. There remained selfishness, especially when the press became involved, but individuals shone through the collective toxicity.

A feel good tale with depth, advocating a willingness to look beyond the net curtains that shield inhabitants from the outside world. Read this book; laugh, weep and remember what it is to express love. I recommend it to all.