#MissBensonsBeetle #RandomThingsTours #blogtour
Rachel Joyce’s books are always full of charm, emotion and character growth. Often, while undertaking life altering feats of stamina and strength, her characters reveal themselves to the reader slowly like the peeling layers of an onion. This novel is no exception when it comes to a central character who has a pilgrimage to make, but for some reason this one hit me right in the heart. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman of a certain age. It could be because I’m not thin or conventionally pretty. It may be because I also have unfulfilled ambitions. Whatever the reason, Miss Benson brought a huge lump to my throat. So many things moved me: her unspoken love for a man who never even considers a relationship with her; her difficulty conforming to the post-war standards of beauty and fashion; her introvert nature and feeling of being out of step with other women. I loved the growth that comes from realising she is the only one who can follow her dream. I loved the relationship she builds with Edith, an assistant she didn’t want or expect. I’m always moved when people realise that they don’t fit in because they aren’t being themselves. Miss Benson doesn’t fit with ordinary people, not because she’s inferior, but because she is extraordinary.
We join Margery Benson as she is teaching in a girl’s school, bored and under appreciated. On this particular day, the girls draw an image of Margery that shocks and upsets her. There is a sudden realisation that this is how people see her. Something snaps and Margery simply packs up and walks out, for some inexplicable reason with a pair of hockey/ lacrosse boots under her arm. Joyce takes us back to the past when Margery was a little girl, sitting at her father’s desk being taught about beetles. He tells her about a place called New Caledonia, right at the bottom of the world where a Golden Flower Beetle lives, on a particular type of orchid. One afternoon, while reading about the beetle her father goes to answer the door. All Margery hears is her father say ‘All? What? ALL?’ He then returns to the study, takes something from his drawer and walks past her as if she isn’t there, into the garden. There he blows his brains out with his pistol, without saying another word. These two events are linked. If Margery was different, she might have gone home after seeing the cruel photo drawn by her pupils and done the same, but for some reason this mid-life realisation seems to galvanise her. For so long her most precious belongings were her beetle necklace, a pocket guide of New Caledonia and a map of its terrain. She remembered the moment she decided, in her childhood determination, that when she grew up she would go to the island and search for the Golden Beetle. Then something happened and she settled for being a middle aged teacher. She knew she’d let herself go and she also knew she didn’t have a single friend to help her. Similarly though, she doesn’t have a single friend to stop her.
Rachel Joyce has written a love song to all women who have unlived potential inside them. Margery does what many of us want to do. She throws the old life away and starts again. I loved the friendship that grows between Margery and her assistant Enid Pretty. Enid was, quite literally, her last choice for the job, but she turns out to be the perfect candidate. As Margery suffers horrendous seasickness on the boat, Enid simply rolls up her sleeves and gets on with helping. She supplies and scrubs buckets, keeps her hydrated and never once shies away from the difficult jobs. Margery thought she needed a scientist to accompany her, but no one could possibly be as resourceful as Enid, even if her methods are slightly questionable. When her equipment is lost Margery thinks the trip is over, but Enid magics up replacements for all their equipment and even a jeep to take them into the mountains. Enid has an eye for a good looking man, but usually the wrong sort. Her lifetime’s ambition is to be a mother and she approaches this with the same dogged determination Margery has shown to finding the beetle. If you think the two ambitions are incompatible you are underestimating these women and their bond with each other.
The most incredible thing is the effect Enid has on Margery’s view of herself. From trying to be a ‘proper’ woman and failing. Enid makes her see that she doesn’t have to try. Once they are in the thick of climbing the mountain, searching in sunshine and one of the worst storms the island has seen, Margery realises she feels comfortable with her body. She looks down and instead of her giant dress, she’s wearing the stolen boots, shorts and a man’s shirt. Yet she has never felt more herself. Joyce cleverly gives us examples of how women are expected to be, such as the English wives in the local village. When Enid and Margery go and talk to their group about their mission they come up against some suspicion. The wives are worried about Enid and see her as a threat because of her bleached hair and tight clothing. Margery is a ‘big’ woman and dwarfs the tiny and delicate women at the gathering. She feels awkward. As soon as one of the wives hears about a burglary at the school and a jeep going missing the gossip begins. Then when the English newspapers arrive with the story of a femme fatale who killed her husband and fled the country. They wonder, could this woman and the flirty Enid Pretty be one and the same person?
I felt completely immersed in New Caledonia and the women’s expedition. Joyce brought to life the heat, the lush greenery, the sheer volume of different species and the changeable weather. I was desperate for them to be successful and find this magical beetle. I won’t reveal the ending, but it was a perfect moment that brought a tear to my eye. Tension builds towards the end as we wonder whether the strange man, stalking them throughout the novel, will actually catch up, or if the village women will take their suspicions to the authorities. I was desperate that their mission wouldn’t come to a premature end and that they would plot their escape together, even if it had to be a Thelma and Louise style ending. The book teaches us that it’s okay to be different and that once you live authentically, you will find your people. If we choose to live within societies constraints we might always feel like a misfit; not fitting in can feel painful, but it always feels like freedom. Women can play it safe, but then think of the friendship and adventures you could miss out on. Margery also learns that the joy comes not in realising your dreams, but in continuing to pursue them. This is a strongly feminist piece of work that spoke to me deeply about fulfilling my purpose and the importance of my female friendships. However, the most important relationship is always with ourselves and freedom comes in realising we only have one life and we don’t get another chance to pursue our dreams.