Beastings – Benjamin Myers

There’s a simplicity to this novel that’s really refreshing – the writing is pared down and harsh, mirroring the tough fells that form the story’s backdrop, and the plot focuses in on just three characters.

The girl (we don’t know her name) has taken a child from the Hinckley’s, who she was a help for. She’s been there since being assigned by the orphanage where she was raised, and – we learn slowly – abused by the sisters and raped repeatedly by the priest. The girl is mute, though most likely through trauma rather than anything solely physical.

She has taken the baby and is fleeing across the hills of Cumbria, pursued by the Priest who has enlisted help from a Poacher, and its this chase that forms the core of the story.

The girl – we never know her name – makes her way across crags and moors and woods, half starving to death, meeting all kinds of strangers, some kind, some horrific, all the time trying to keep the baby as safe as possible, despite having no money, only a tiny amount of food and almost no opportunity to get any, save for what little she can forage or beg.

She meets occasional farmers and wanderers, some of whom help her, others quite the opposite, but on the whole she’s alone with her baby.

The Priest and the Poacher are in pursuit, tracking her. The Priest is hard, thin, mean, cites God constantly, and takes drugs rather than eats. At the end of the book the building sense of menace about him is realised in brilliant and surprising ways (I’ll say no more than that).

The Poacher is a simple country man, lives in and from the wild, and the Priest looks down on him, often refusing to engage in conversation with the Poacher, as if it’s beneath him. The Poacher begins as a rough character but he is slowly redeemed by Myers, as a plain talker who gradually reveals the true character of the Priest.

The relationship between the Priest and the Poacher is perhaps the most interesting and engaging part of the book. There’s something suggestive of Waiting for Godot in their ongoing dialogue. The dynamic between them gradually changes as the Poacher starts to see what the Priest is really like, that the Priest is pursuing the girl for self-interested and perhaps even malevolent reasons, and by the final third of the book the Priest avoids conversation with the Poacher, not because he considers it beneath him anymore, but because the Poacher is too close to the bone in his blunt and often funny questions and taunts to the Priest.

Like others of Myers’s books – like Under the Rock – it’s the evocation of the countryside that is so strong in Beastings too, alongside the characters – not as a rural idyll but as a tough, unruly place where nature dominates humans rather than vice versa.

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“She couldn’t remember. Her thoughts no longer sat in a line like stepping stones over a stream but instead were scattered far and wide and without formation like buttercups in long grass. Alone and disconnected from their nearest neighbours.”

Benjamin Myers, Beastings

“The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd.”

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari express the complexity of the individual in the opening sentences of A Thousand Plateaus.

Days of Awe – A.M Homes

Days of Awe is a darkly comic and unsettling short story about a woman novelist on a speaking engagement at a conference on the Holocaust, at which she meets a guy she used to know at university and has a brief affair. But it’s about so much more than this – guilt, truth, forgiveness, openness, what it is to be yourself…

She recognises the guy when she arrives at the airport (we never know the protagonists’ names; the woman is the Trangressive Novelist or just ‘she’, he is the War Correspondent) and they strike up a conversation when they meet in the hotel lobby. They soon get together and have a one night stand, despite the fact that she is in a relationship with her girlfriend, a relationship close enough that her girlfriend and her mother play online scrabble with one another.

This is followed the next day when she finds a synagogue to go and worship at, only to find him there too. They spend time together, time in which they are able to be playful and honest and maybe very different from how they normally are – but eventually fall out and she leaves him in the middle of nowhere to walk back to the hotel.

Alongside this story is their relationship to war and genocide. He is a war correspondent, a witness to genocides, and held in high esteem. She is a novelist who has no direct experience of genocide but who is trying to understand its effect on future generations, and is taunted by holocaust survivors at the conference for having no right to talk to about the subject. Her treatment by some of those attending the conference is just hilarious.

The Days of Awe is a ten day religious period in the Jewish calendar when people ask for forgiveness from those they have wronged, and it’s this question of forgiveness and how much is owed that is at the heart of this story – to holocaust survivors, to parents, to partners. At the same time, though, it’s as if everyday life for the woman (and probably the man) are frozen and normal rules don’t apply at the conference, as she acts in ways that seem to be at odds with how she typically behaves.

The question is, does she need to ask for forgiveness for how she behaves during these Days of Awe that we witness in the story, or for how she normally behaves?

“The Priest’s mouth was a gash in his face as if the flesh of his mouth had been pulled tight across his skull then slit with a knife.”

Macabre and vivid description from Benjamin Myers in Beastings

Dead Men’s Trousers – Irvine Welsh

It’s hard to know where to begin with this book. Maybe the plot. This is about the reuniting of the four main characters from Welsh’s earlier book, Trainspotting: Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Frank Begbie. It’s twenty years later and all have changed, some more than others.

Renton is a successful DJ manager, but dissatisfied, travelling around the world, living out of hotels, and drinking and using drugs too much. Sick Boy is sex obsessed, and runs an escort agency. Spud is on the streets, in the worst position of the lot. Begbie is an internationally known artist, married with two kids, living in LA, his angry past apparently behind him.

Renton and Begbie run into each other on a flight and they begin to be friends again, despite Renton owing Begbie and Sick Boy thousands after ripping them off at the end of Trainspotting. We meet the others, and in the process [a few spoilers coming up] Sick Boy spikes his brother in law, Euan’s, drink with drugs, leading him to leave his wife; Spud gets involved in human organ smuggling, but his dog eats it; he has his own kidney extracted by Sick Boy; Begbie reveals he’s not entirely changed; Renton and Sick Boy find love; one of the four dies… it’s a great story, gripping, funny and sad.

What makes this book stand out, other than plot? The writing style. As Welsh is well known for, he writes in a Scottish dialect, hard to read at the start, but you quickly adapt. He even varies the depth of accent among the characters, with the globe trotting Renton having a minimal accent and Spud’s much thicker, hard to understand at times.

And each of them is presented in the first person, an approach that draws you in to each character, and allows you to see the differences in views between them, especially the animosity between Renton and Sick Boy, and Begbie’s hidden side.

What’s interesting is how, for each of the characters, little has changed in their personality, despite living different lives: Renton is still unhappy with his life and trying, largely unsuccessfully, to better himself; Sick Boy has replaced his drug addiction with sex addiction; Spud has never got his act together; Begbie’s previous traits are there still, just hidden.