Rachel Joyce
Miss Benson's Beetle
Penguin Random House, 2020
ISBN-13: 978 - 0857521996

Miss Bensons Beetle 

 

"Miss Benson’s Beetle is a lifeline...Not only does the author (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, The Music Shop) give us a book that matches the time in terms of loss and pain, she brings much needed breaths of beauty, laughter, and even adventure to a story - and a year - yearning for hope."

Forget about ‘unprecedented’. If the year 2020 requires a word, I nominate ‘reinvented’. We’re reinventing relationships, jobs, dreams. Most folks I know are floundering as much as adjusting, wandering about as much as we’re trying to focus. 2020 is as much about stops as it is starts.

I doubt British author Rachel Joyce could have anticipated dropping her newest novel, Miss Benson’s Beetle, smack into the middle of a year with such global loss and reinvention. After all, this is a story about a deeply wounded woman who’s lost so much already she decides, in a rather mad fashion, to go in search finally of an undiscovered beetle...on the other side of the world. Really? 

Really. And make no mistake: Miss Benson’s Beetle is a lifeline to be sure. Not only does the author (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, The Music Shop) give us a book that matches the time in terms of loss and pain, she brings much needed breaths of beauty, laughter, and even adventure to a story - and a year - yearning for hope. 

Joyce begins the novel with a devasting moment in Margery Benson’s childhood. We learn why she loves beetles and yet why she’s so scarred. Years later, when the day comes that she loses any shred of dignity she’s had as an adult, she begins to plot and plan her expedition to New Caledonia, where the beetle is said to live. But she can’t do it alone and, in the process, Margery meets two characters who come along on the ride. 

As she showed with Harold Fry, Joyce is as much interested in a character’s interior landscape as she is the exterior. The very different trauma each of these three characters has experienced creates equally different responses and motivates their journeys as much as the novelty of international travel in the 1950s when the story is set. Each step they take seems haunted, each move forward powered only with the grit of survival: “Margery crawled further and further behind, lifting every stone, peering under every leaf. With each step, she knew pain. But she focused on one after the other, just as she had focused on one button after another on her shirt, and by only looking at the small things that were straight ahead, she kept going.”

Somehow, after a global jaunt that almost never happens, a race of dead ends and raised stakes (and late nights reading to see what happens next), she discovers what she is born to do. In the midst of heartache, Margery Benson finds a calling. And it is not easy.

“You’re behaving as if you can turn your back on your vocation. But it’s not like that Marge,” her assistant Enid Pretty tells her. “You’re deep in this. You’re in it up to your eyebrows. And you don’t seem to realize. It isn’t like me. Your vocation is not your friend. It’s not a consolation for someone you lost once or even a way of passing the time. It doesn’t care whether you’re happy or sad. You must not betray it, Marge.”

I’ve often wondered why novels aren’t on required reading lists for psychology programs, career counselling or seminaries - they are, after all, teachers of empathy; tools for human connections. And certainly, Miss Benson’s Beetle should be required for anyone interested in helping those wrestling through grief, PTSD, or even purpose. 

But it’s also for anyone who loves stunning sentences and images - the kind that make you stop and marvel at the shape of them - as well as those interested in adventures, dreams, laugh-out-loud moments and mostly, the beauty of friends who are loyal no matter what. It’s easy to get caught up in the adventure Miss Benson is on - so caught up, in fact, that dinner doesn’t get made and work assignments are ignored.  

It’s a wild ride to be sure, ideal for the year we find ourselves in. Exactly what we need.