About the Book:
Winner of the Portico Prize for Literature and the Northern Writers’ Award
A girl and a baby. A priest and a poacher. A savage pursuit through the landscape of a changing rural England.
When a teenage girl leaves the workhouse and abducts a child placed in her care, the local priest is called upon to retrieve them. Chased through the Cumbrian mountains of a distant past, the girl fights starvation and the elements, encountering the hermits, farmers and hunters who occupy the remote hillside communities. An American Southern Gothic tale set against the violent beauty of Northern England, Beastings is a sparse and poetic novel about morality, motherhood and corruption.
I watched a film earlier this year called Brimstone starring Guy Pearce and Dakota Fanning and it was seriously grim, but also a really great example of the darker side of historical fiction, utterly horrifying yet one of those films where you still felt compelled to watch right until the very end. Early on while reading Beastings, this film came to mind as this novel really reminded me of many aspects of Brimstone and that same compulsion to just keep on reading mirrored the way I felt while watching that film. Fortunately though, I did enjoy the novel Beastings a whole lot more than I enjoyed the film Brimstone.
Make no mistake though, Beastings is grim. Literary historical fiction that is a dark descent into a horrifying game of cat and mouse between a priest and a young teenage girl who has turned herself into a fugitive by stealing her employer’s baby. But it’s also so much more than this – it’s also a really deep examination of morality and while it’s uncomfortable at times to read, Benjamin Myers writes with such stunning prose. He has an interesting style whereupon he writes without the use of commas or narrative punctuation. You might think at first that this wouldn’t work, that the text would be too dense without any breaks. But for some reason, it just lent itself to this poetic quality that combined with the mood of the story and the setting to perfection – dark themes depicting the more depraved side of human nature coupled with poverty, deprivation and abuse; Benjamin really has combined style, setting, and theme brilliantly, and the end result is a novel of literary power and impact.
The story is set up on the fells in Northern England and while the author doesn’t specify which historical era he’s using, I got a sense that it was possibly post Victorian, pre turn-of-the-century. The story opens with the girl – who is how she is referred to throughout the novel, although she does have a name and we do find it out, the author only refers to her as the girl, in the same way as the baby is the bairn, the priest is the priest, and the poacher is the poacher. For the priest, the use of this title seemed to convey more rigid power than referring to him as Father and then his name, as is customary with a priest. However, for the other characters, the lack of using a name conveyed the opposite, demonstrating how utterly powerless they really were. An important distinction that weighed on my mind as the story progressed.
‘And privileges were the church’s way of rewarding those chosen to do God’s work. Small rewards for a great task: shepherding the sheep into His fold.’
So, back to the beginning with the girl, who is on the run with her employer’s baby. The father of the baby has gone to the town priest to see if the priest can get his child back. An odd choice, you’d think he might have gone to the police, but the girl came to the employer via the local church run workhouse and I suppose he felt that finding her needed to be made their problem given that they provided her to his household. We quickly ascertain that the priest has a more sinister interest in this girl. He engages a poacher as a tracker and immediately sets out to find her, not informing the police of the abduction at all. It doesn’t take long for us to realise that he’s not interested in the fate of the baby. He wants the girl because he has, probably for her entire life within the workhouse, sexually abused her, although it’s inferred that this abuse goes beyond that, to a whole other extremely depraved level. Concurrently, she’s also been the recipient of physical, mental and emotional abuse by the sisters who run the workhouse, in a macabre sort of hate filled punishment for the abuse she’s subjected to at the hands of the priest. This horrible, vile cycle has clearly left this poor girl so disturbed, little wonder she’s run away, but why has she taken the baby?
‘The baby was hers now. She would set it free far away from that town half-mad under his rule. Back there it wouldn’t stand a chance – not with the feckless Hinckley as a father and his dying wife as a mother. Soon she would be dead and buried and Hinckley wouldn’t cope and then the Father and the Sisters would intervene and before anyone knew it he would have his teeth in the child. Him. The Priest. Sucking the life out of the young to leave them spent and scared or silent. And on it would go. But not this time. No. This way there was still hope.’
There is so much sadness within this novel, along with truly awful and horrific abuses of power. Much of it is also an examination of motherhood and the lengths that a woman will go to in order to protect the one they are mothering, even if they are not the natural mother. The priest himself is so vile, absolutely horrendous and entirely appears to feel as though he is above reproach. That everything he does is his God given right and that he is superior to all other people. Second to God, is how he views himself. The poacher who is acting as guide for the priest was quite an interesting character. Not being a church person or even someone who believes in God, he had no qualms about calling the priest to task on what appeared to him as a wildly obsessive hunting mission aimed at finding the girl rather than the baby. He also felt free to question rumours he’d heard over time in town and while he might not be the sharpest tool in the box, he manages to put two and two together rather swiftly, demonstrating just how arrogant the priest was. He truly believed that his actions would be invisible simply because he wanted them to be. Because he was the priest, so no one had the right to question him, even when his actions were glaringly transparent.
‘She held these things over him. He knew it and she knew it. She had that power. That was why she had to be stopped contained confined. Watched over. The child was his excuse; his justification. He didn’t care about some stupid mewling baby – the world was full of them. He cared about his status. He cared about his Freedom he can about keeping her mute and passive and under his control. He cared about keeping all of them mute and passive and under his control though she was the first to flee.’
This novel really is one where I just want to go straight to the ending and dig in, really analyse it to pieces, but of course, then that would take an experience from you that is vital to decoding this novel. You really do not want the ending spoilt. However, there are such interesting questions of morality at the end of the novel, the apex of which stems from this: What is more important? A condemned life or freedom through death? At what point does protection become endangerment? Rarely have I seen these themes and questions raised quite so dramatically as they were within this novel and while I was stunned and absolutely filled with disbelief by what happens in the end, so much so, that I went back and re-read the last few pages, I could all of a sudden see with absolute clarity what the whole point of the ending was. Like I said at the beginning of this review, this is a grim novel, there is no rainbow at the end of the storm, just more muck and gore. I don’t want you to think that it gets better because it really doesn’t: it starts grim, the middle is grim, and the end is grim. And yet, I simply couldn’t stop reading it. It’s the kind of novel that is still playing on my mind and is still haunting me days after finishing it. What Benjamin Myers has written about in this novel is in some ways a familiar history, but the demonstrative effect on the characters is what he’s really mastered here, particularly the lasting effect on the girl. Honestly, in my opinion, he’s just done a superb job with this novel.
‘You’re the lucky one the Sisters had said. Being tapped the way you are. That was the way God wanted and don’t you dare to doubt that. Father chose you because you were the quiet one. No other reason but that. He said you’d never be guilty in the language of gossip or hearsay; said the silent can always be trusted because God took their tongues and made them blessed. Said they were gifted in discretion. Receptacles for The Truth. You should consider yourself lucky; your debt to Father is great.
She felt that debt about her now like the ox feels the yolk.’
Benjamin came to my notice earlier this year when his novel The Gallows Pole won the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. I had read an interesting review about that novel so I was keen to read this one when it was sent to me, and I really am glad that I have, despite its darkness. If you have enjoyed reading the novels of Hannah Kent, Burial Rites and The Good People, I think you would really appreciate Beastings. It’s got that same literary feel to it, history of the marginalised, stripped back to its grim heart, leaving you with vivid lasting impressions of the story and the characters. The stylistic decisions made by the author also offers a very literary feel to the narrative. Maybe an element that is not to some reader’s tastes, and believe it when I say, I’m a punctuation queen, but honestly, the lack of it within this novel didn’t phase me, instead, I can see how it enhanced the actual complete narrative. All in all, I do really recommend Beastings, but with caution, depending upon the type of reader you are and what mood you’re in. If you are a fan of literary historical fiction, especially the kind that shows the darker side of human nature, which also has that tangible build of suspense, dread, and the unexpected, then Beastings might fit the bill for you.
Thanks is extended to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing me with a copy of Beastings for review.
About the Author:
Benjamin Myers was born in Durham in 1976. His novel The Gallows Pole received a Roger Deakin Award and won the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. Beastings won the Portico Prize for Literature and Pig Iron won the Gordon Burn Prize, while Richard was a Sunday Times Book of the Year. He has also published poetry, crime novels and short fiction, while his journalism has appeared in publications including, among others, the Guardian, New Statesman, Caught by the River and New Scientist.
He lives in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire.
benmyers.com / @BenMyers1
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
Released 5th November 2019