her a picture of a small gold-colored beetle in a picture book of mythical animals. She is spellbound. She will go to New Caledonia, wherever that is, and find the beetle.
Rachel Joyce’s fifth novel, Miss Benson’s Beetle, is the story of two women on a life-altering quest to find this undiscovered beetle. It is clear from the text that the author has either some entomological training or has done her beetle research (the latter, as revealed in acknowledgments). The year is 1950 in war-weary London; rationing is still a fact of life in England.
Margery Benson is a forty-six-year-old spinster teaching domestic science to girls who are bored stiff. Her life takes a dramatic turn when she is the butt of a cruel joke perpetrated by her students. Humiliated, she abruptly ends her lesson on how to make a cake in wartime, and walks out of the classroom never to return. She realizes this is her moment. It’s time to risk everything, fulfill her dream and find the gold beetle. She advertises for an assistant to help with the expedition to the other side of the world. Out of candidates and desperate, she offers the job to Mrs. Enid Pretty, who appears unsuited for the position in every respect. Mrs. Pretty also seems suspiciously eager to get out of town. The two women could not be more different. Physically, Margery is a large woman, tall and big-boned. Enid is petite, young, blond and attractive. Enid is a risktaker and not reluctant to use her charms to get what she wants.
Joyce’s writing style is clever, full of surprises and occasional humor. I found it captivating. For example, when describing one of the British wives of government officials stuck in New Caledonia, Joyce writes, “She was a sweet person, but her intelligence she saved for special occasions.” Or in describing history, “History is not made up by events alone, but also by what lies between the lines.”
As the search gets underway in New Caledonia, the two women, completely out of their depth, face unimaginable hardship, cyclones, illness, a deranged stalker, and the threat of arrest.
Enid becomes surprisingly insightful and a source of strength, reminding Margery, when she gets discouraged, that her vocation in life is to find the beetle. Enid’s vocation is to bring a pregnancy to a successful conclusion. In the weeks of searching they become more and more interdependent, and they reveal more and more intimate facts about their past lives that cements the closest of friendships. In the end, do they find the gold beetle? Can’t say. Does it even exist at all? I’m an entomologist, and I have no idea if it does or not. Among the 200,000 species of beetles worldwide, maybe it does. In a postscript, Joyce interviews her two fictional characters, an intriguing literary device that answers some questions not divulged in the story. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, despite being a little disappointed with the ending. I would recommend it to any reader, not just women or beetle lovers. A copy was recently added to the Coffman library.
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