15th January 2021 (15:15)
I confess that I was prevailed upon to read “Miss Benson’s Beetle” by my wife (having read the book, she felt an urgent need to discuss it with someone and the restrictions of COVID ‘lockdown’ conferred the privilege on me. Hence the formation of a rather bijou book club for two). However, it proved to be rather fun! This was also my introduction to the work of Rachel Joyce, though the author has ‘bestseller’ credentials and this latest novel has the hallmarks of an accomplished storyteller.
The Coleoptera referred to in the title is the Golden Beetle of New Caledonia, which, in 1914, ten year-old Marjorie Benson studied with her father in his rectory study, while her older brothers were away fighting in France. Together they imagined how it would be to discover this incredible creature and bring the first specimen home, for scientific validation. Such an expedition was the stuff of dreams. However, real life intervened harshly for Miss Benson and aged 46, she was instead washed up on the shores of a hopeless teaching career, acutely aware that her capacity for adventure was running out. Still, what had been sustained through her intervening passage into adulthood was an enduring fascination with beetles and her passion re-ignited, an expedition to the French archipelago is belatedly and hurriedly planned.
Clearly, the limited life experience of the doughty Miss Benson will be one barrier among many, but despite Marjorie’s misgivings, her self-appointed, flamboyantly attractive companion (Enid Pretty) becomes the equivalent of a latter day Passepartout. Certainly Enid and her more worldly perspective provides a crucial counterweight to her earnest employer, but she also injects comic relief within a sometimes tense journey towards Miss Benson’s overdue date with destiny.
Set mainly in the 1950s, the plot follows the intrepid duo’s travelling obstacle course and challenges, compounded by sexist attitudes commonly held at that time. However, the author also ridicules the imperialist assumptions of the Brits encountered abroad and lampoons the civilising influence of such a nation of stereotypical eccentrics (Miss Benson leaves her native shores in a pith helmet). Indeed, the dated images successfully created by the narrative, at times felt like a Pathé newsreel brought to life. This is by no means a criticism, but it does apply a gloss to the story, which knowingly underplays some of the attendant struggles encountered by the two main characters. Yet, what is most gratifying is the burgeoning relationship between Miss Benson and Ms Pretty, forged by circumstances that ultimately erase their obvious differences in favour of their collective and considerable strengths.
I think it would be fair to suggest that whilst not labelling this book as ‘chick lit’, my fellow reader’s appreciation was more lavish, but as the book demonstrates, life demands ‘different strokes for different folks’. An entertaining, light read for all!