There are some authors you know you really ought to read. You like the look of their face, you enjoy the cut of their social media jib and, most importantly, lots of the people you trust have read their books and raved about them. Oh and you know they write dark novels that in the most recent cases tend to be about the British landscape. It’s just an endless list of ticks and pointers. Then you finally do and discover all these thoughts were right. This is what has happened with Benjamin Myers, who graced the blog with his bookshelves and his bibliophilic charm yesterday, and his latest book Beastings.
Rain fell like steel rivets.
It came down hard pile-driving into the ground. It was the first full fall in the weeks since she had left St Mary’s.
She had departed while the embers were still glowing. Upped and went before Hinckley started hacking in his pit. She’d bundled the bairn and gone out the back way. Taken one of the tracks out of town. Away from the streets and into the trees.
It was the best for both of them. To get out of that house. The only way.
Benjamin Myers fourth novel throws you in at the deep end from the off, as all the best books tend to do. You know a lot and yet very little. We know it is raining, we know that a young woman has fled the house she was living in with a baby that isn’t hers, we also have the sense that both her and the baby were in danger. We soon learn that she is being followed, although hounded/stalked sounds more sinisterly appropriate, and is heading for a secret island somewhere off the coast. Because on an island in the ocean no-one can sneak up on you. The question is if she can get through the forests and mountains of Cumbria and head to the ocean without being caught and without hardly any supplies.
What is so blinking clever about Beastings is the nature of its simplicity, which also makes it incredibly powerful. In the main we only have four characters simply known as the girl, the baby, the Priest and the Poacher (who the Priest has hired, along with his dog, to track the girl down). We have the seemingly simple premise of a girl who steals a child and is being hunted down. Yet we also have the question of why she is being hunted so coldly and ruthlessly, and without giving away any spoilers, the question of what links this girl to the Priest who is following her rather than the child’s father or mother. There are grey areas that we need to learn about.
Myers prose initially seems incredibly sparse, for a start not a word is wasted. There’s no waffle, there’s no filler, every word counts. Yet this is less a case of scarcity and more a case of hidden depths and leaving the reader to do some of the work and fill in the aforementioned grey areas, rightly or wrongly, as things are slowly revealed. The girl herself is mute and so her actions are what show us her true character whilst also making her plight and escape all the more difficult. The Priest doesn’t really want to talk, apart from when in his sleep he becomes loose lipped, other than when absolutely necessary.
In case you are thinking this book sounds like it is relentlessly dark, fret not. Firstly it reads like a mix of adventure and thriller (whilst astoundingly written) so you will whizz through it as in its essence it is a chase novel. When things get particularly bleak Myers often throws in some black comedy, it’s really dark but it will make you chuckle, occasionally despite yourself. I found this particularly so in the relationship between the Priest, who is odious, and the Poacher, who is like a village idiot meets hit man. That said overall this is not a book for those of you who like a cosy love story, this is a story of humans in their most unflinching rawness.
The Poacher looked at the back of the Priest’s pale thin neck – a neck that unlike his had not seen sun this past season. He looked at the Priest’s neck and thought how easy it would be to snap it with some snaring wire and then he idly wondered whether the punishment for putting a man of God in the soil was greater than that of a common man and then he thought of all the different ways he would dispose of a body out here if he had to. Of course pigs were the best way. Any countryman knew that a half dozen hogs could do to a body in half a day that which time and the elements and the scavengers would take half a year or longer to do. Because it’s the bones and the skull that are the tricky parts. And the teeth. Especially the teeth.
This is why Beastings is the perfect title and why Myers names it so. That’s the beastings he said. The mother’s first milk for the newborn. The best bit. Tit-fresh. When I said this novel was about the rawness of humans, I probably actually meant their most animalistic. The most base and in some cases utterly beastly ways in which they behave when trying to survive, for each of our four characters is fighting for survival in one way or another whatever their motives.
I said there were only four characters and actually that is a lie. There is one huge fifth main character and that is Cumbria and her mountains. Snarker Pike, Troutbeck Park, Seat Sandal, Dollywaggon Pike, Lyulph’s Tower, Prison Crag, Poadpot Hill and many more all brood in the background as our heroine makes her route of escape. Sometimes Cumbria is the perfect idyll of a place to hide, more often a threatening, dangerous and trickier customer. Always beautiful, always present, always watching, always celebrated. In essence what we have here is a literary thriller of the highest order and one that really stands out from the crowd and packs an intense, unflinching and disturbing punch as you read to its dramatic climax. It is also a love letter to Cumbria, be it a dark twisted one that has got covered in mud and torn as it was blown through a few hedges and down a few dells.
When asked to give a quote for Beastings recently, I described it as ‘Thomas Hardy meets Cormac McCarthy, need I say more?” I actually wanted to say “imagine if Thomas Hardy and Cormac McCarthy had a bastard lovechild” but I didn’t think that the literary world might be ready for such a statement or the images that it conjurors in so many ways. Anyway, I gave that quote firstly because Beastings is one of those books that feels like it has elements of classics of the past, feels contemporary and discusses issues (religion, nature vs. nurture, nature vs. humans) of the here and now plus could actually be set in some apocalyptic wasteland of a British Isles of the future. Clever, huh? Also secondly Myers writing and storytelling is just that bloody good. If I were a cult leader here is where I would endeth my Sunday Sermon from the Savidge Mount. So go forth and read it. Now.
Don’t forget to go and see Benjamin’s shelves and read about his utter passion for books here. It made me want to be his new beardy best mate and start a beardy book club with him. Who else has read Beastings and what did you make of it? Have you read any of Myers’ other novels? I think I am going to give Pig Iron a whirl next!