Beastings (3 July 2014) by Benjamin Myers
At the beginning of Beastings, I enjoyed the narrative for all the reasons I expected to: its rawness, the sparse and visceral language, and a cold and bleak and painful evocation of the English landscape, portrayed with greater emphasis on its harshness and wildness than its beauty. For several chapters it's near-impossible to tell what time period the story is taking place in: could be medieval times, could be a post-apocalyptic future. Adding to the folkloric feel, the characters remain nameless.
'The girl', having taken 'the baby' from a family she was working for, is on the run. Fleeing across open ground with few provisions, she relies largely on the shelter and food provided by nature in order to survive - she receives help from a handful of strangers, but she is mute, and so unable (as well as unwilling) to forge a connection with anyone she meets. In pursuit of her are 'the Priest' and 'the Poacher'. The Priest is a corrupt man, without conscience or pity, determined to capture the girl for reasons far beyond her abduction of the child; the Poacher simply hired to help him, with little investment of his own in their mission.
The girl's history is revealed in fragments as she remembers scenes from her life before this escape; more shards of pain than real memories, with barely a scrap of happiness to provide relief. The Priest's story, and his motivation, is made clearer during his terse conversations with the Poacher. None of the characters are spared any discomfort; violence is never far away. There's little punctuation, and speech intermingles with the rest of the text, enhancing the unique presence of the landscape in the story and constantly shifting the reader's focus back to simple instincts and actions. The title, 'beastings', refers to the first milk drawn from a mother's breast, but the word 'beast' and its variations appear frequently throughout the book, and the way the story concentrates on its characters' animalistic behaviour - whether performed out of necessity or by choice - is impossible to ignore.
Is it awful to admit I didn't like this book as much as I could have because I could not have cared less what happened to the girl and the baby? It didn't matter to me whether they were caught by the Poacher and the Priest, or whether they died or what. The girl and the Poacher annoyed me, and that only left the almost comically evil Priest. Scenes ostensibly demonstrating the girl's ingenuity failed to make an impact on me because she never seemed like anything more than a symbol; a foil of purity and good intentions to offset the maliciousness of the Priest. As the story wore on, I found myself hoping the Priest would survive and succeed purely because his presence provided the only spark of real interest among the characters.
I don't intend to discuss certain events towards the end -
if you've read the book, you will probably know what I mean - in any detail. I'll just say I felt they were unnecessary and I didn't see what message the author was trying to convey here.
Beastings is well-crafted; admirable in its use of stripped-down language and sharp, minimal dialogue. In several ways it reminded me of Katherine Faw Morris's Young God. The story may be very different, but the narrative is equally bare and muscular, and here again is the tale of a young, abused girl trying to survive on her own. Unlike Young God, this novel has a tragic ending, but it's similarly shocking, abrupt, desolate. 'Like an American Southern Gothic tale set against the violent beauty of Northern England', says the blurb - and it's accurate: but Beastings joins the ranks of books I admired rather than liked.
Rating: 6/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback