Review: Miss Benson's Beetle, by Rachel Joyce
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.
Here is my quick-fire no spoiler review: oh my God read this book it's so good. This is the story of Margery Benson, a woman who has lost almost all of her family in both world wars, who is a keen amateur entomologist, and decides to sod off to New Caledonia (an island somewhere in the South Pacific - I think it's in the vague Australian direction, but I cannot be fucked to look at a map, nobody teach me) to look for a beetle that has only ever been described as mythical, if it does exist. She ends up going with a woman she does not want at all as her assistant, who does not seem like she is going to be suited to clambering up mountains and digging around for beetles in dirt and such; and everything spirals into wonderfulness from there. This book is going into contention for my top of 2021 list, it was that delightful.
Right, now go away.
I loved every single thing about this book. I loved how high the stakes were throughout (and Enid dies! SHE DIES! I did not see that coming, but oh boy, was that a fucking PUNCH IN THE NARDS and such a well-executed heartbreaking twist), and how it set a coming-of-age story in the middle of an adventure story. I like the way that the villains we were expecting to be villainous throughout ended up being sympathetic, a bit pitiful characters; and the characters that were set up as secondary, supporting, hero characters ended up being the villains. And the motivations of all the characters was just so human - Mr Mundic was motivated by his desperate fear of being left behind; Mrs Pope was bitter and jaded and disappointed; Margery was lonely.
And the overall story was just so well handled: the narrative pace was brisk, and readable, and the characters' journeys felt true to life and were given plenty of space to breathe without ever being rushed or unlikely or dragged out. The plot served the characters well, and the characters were a wonderful pair to go on this journey with, and enjoy the gripping nature of the adventure. The writing was wonderful too - light and breezy and easy to read, but still very introspective and thoughtful. Rachel Joyce sure did an excellent job of making overarching points, and saying some home truths, without overcomplicating what she was trying to say.
And I loved how hopeful this book felt, all throughout. Even though the story went to some dark, difficult places, and some of the scenes and conversations were hard, the feeling carrying everything was that of hope in a better future, and that that hope can get you through just about anything - well, it was just the type of book I needed right now. Maybe it's a bit of a simplistic or reductive way of looking at the world, but reading about how this woman, who had been abandoned by her entire family, made her own on a quest for a beetle that may or may not exist, a bug that most of the world doesn't know or care about - it just made me really happy. Even when I was crying because Margery had lost her best friend and now had to take care of her baby on her own, I knew they were going to be okay, and they'd probably even be happy, and that was exactly what I needed.
This book is just the perfect combination of charming and heart and heavy, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Please go read it immediately.