It is 1950, two unlikely women set off on a hare-brained adventure to the other side of the world to try and find a beetle, and in doing so discover friendship and how to be their best of themselves. This is quintessential Joyce: at once poignant and playful, with huge heart and the same resonance, truth and lightness of touch as her phenomenally successful debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Britain, post Second World War. I n a moment of madness Margery Benson abandons her sensible job and advertises for an assistant to accompany her on an expedition. She is going to travel to the other side of the world to search for a beetle that may or may not exist.
Enid Pretty, in pink hat and pompom sandals, is not the companion she had in mind. But together they will find themselves drawn into an adventure that exceeds all expectations. They must risk everything, break all the rules, but at the top of a red mountain they will discover who they truly are, and how to be the best of themselves.
This is a novel that is less about what can be found than the belief it might be found; it is an intoxicating adventure story but it is also about what it means to be a woman and a tender exploration of a friendship that defies all boundaries.
To say that I loved and adored Miss Benson’s Beetle would be an understatement, I could sing its praises to the high heavens and I will be urging anyone and everyone to read.
What was to like? I have to say the characters, Miss Margery Benson and Miss Enid Pretty, two polar opposites who somehow travelled to the other side of the world, had the most amazing adventure and made a few discoveries about themselves along the way were the stars of the story.
Miss Benson was your typical spinster, large, unfashionable, who lacked self worth, believed the worst about others and herself, and needed that one event to kick start a rebellion and determination to search for a rare golden beetle. As Joyce unravelled her childhood, you felt an overriding sense of sorrow, of a life on hold, and an intense loneliness that emanated from Margery. You could see her internal struggle, her unwillingness to open up, to let another person close, afraid of the hurt and rejection it could unfurl.
Her madcap idea to travel to New Caledonia, felt like her time to shine, to search not only for the golden beetle but also to find out just who she was.
From the assistant interviews, to the mass stockpiling of spam and toilet paper her preparations to travel were at times hilarious, until Joyce ramped up the humour to another level with the arrival of Enid Pretty.
Oh how I loved this character, from the tight fitting pink travel suit, to the blonde coiffed hair, Enid Pretty was a truly inspired creation from Joyce. The images she conjured were beyond anything I have encountered in a long time and I absolutely adored her. Enid came with her own hang ups, and a glorious hint of mystery, a woman who was fleeing from something, but had the most wonderful heart and soul.
The relationship between Margery and Enid was like an never ending roller coaster, from Margery’s exasperation to Enid’s ability to sweep away any negativity, and her street wise commonsense approach that got them out of a few tight spots and encounters.
For all the humour Joyce also injected a more serious side, a side that saw Margery slowly unravel, but in a good way. Joyce used Enid brilliantly as the person who forced Margery to confront her past, to reassess who she was, but also opened up the possibility of friendship, of love not only for others but also herself.
Their journey to New Caledonia was full of incident, the rejected assistant Mr Mundic, fast on their heels, wrapped up in his own hallucinatory hell, as his war experiences pushed his mental state to the limit. It added that extra bit of drama, as you second guessed his purpose and also the consequences of his actions.
The island of New Caledonia was its own wonderful character, the tropical weather, the landscape and the expats that viewed Margery and Enid with such derision.
Their determined search for the elusive golden beetle was suffused with danger, and storms but it also cemented their friendship. The subsequent events were both heart warming and heartbreaking, as Joyce plied us with a myriad of emotions. One minute I was smiling, the next my heart would sink, and I wanted nothing more than for those two glorious characters to have a wonderful, happy outcome.
Joyce’s narrative was brilliant, the imagery superb, Margery and Enid the most amazing creations. In fact the novel is ripe for a drama series, and it would be interesting to see which actors would suit the roles of Margery and Enid.
Miss Benson’s Beetle will undoubtedly be one of my books of the year. Absolutely brilliant!
I would like to thank Doubleday for a copy of Miss Benson’s Beetle to read and review and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting My Bookish Blogspot to participate in the blogtour.
About the author
Rachel Joyce is the author of the Sunday Times and international bestsellers The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Perfect, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, The Music Shop and a collection of interlinked short stories, A Snow Garden & Other Stories. Her books have been translated into thirty -six languages and two are in development for film. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book prize and longlisted for
the Man Booker Prize. Rachel was awarded the Specsavers National Book Awards ‘New Writer of the Year’ in December 201 2 and shortlisted for the ‘UK Author of the Year’201 4. Rachel was a Costa prize judge and
University Big Read author in 2019.
She has also written over twenty original afternoon plays and adaptations of the classics for BBC Radio 4, including all the Bronte novels. She moved to writing after a long career as an actor, performing leading roles for the RSC, the National Theatre and Cheek by Jowl. She lives with her family in Gloucestershire