In his prize-winning Pig Iron Benjamin Myers depicted a young traveller out of place with contemporary society who, at the end of the novel, walks off alone into the Cumbrian mountains. It is a novel that is at odds with much contemporary fiction, and better for it, with its focus on a group of working-class characters, regional voices and celebration of disengagement from modern life (the main character is even dismissive of mobile phones).
With beastings Myers has written a historical novel that continues in this vein, he is becoming a Ron Rash of northern England. Like Rash’s novels, and short stories, of the Appalachian mountains Myer’s depiction of life on the Cumbrian fells spans Biblical struggles between innocence and corruption, sacrifice and love and a sense of an evil that will always exist within the human soul. Myers creates a wholly believable literary voice for this region, while being aware of its literary past (his characters seek the solace of solitude among nature on the same mountains that William Wordsworth walked over).
In beastings Isabelle Bulmer, a sixteen-year-old mute girl who has been brought up in the savage care of an orphanage, escapes into those mountains carrying a baby that she has abducted. Set in the late nineteenth-century, though the atmosphere Myers creates could be medieval or, even, the apocalyptic future of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Isabelle must evade the lurking attentions of men ever-ready to rape, while being pursued by the Priest (who has repeatedly sexually abused her while she was under his care in the orphanage) and the Poacher. The capital letter used to identify the character indicates how didactic the characters are, the hypocrisies of the Priest (who could have stepped out of a Mystery play) and the innocence, enhanced by her silence, of Isabelle but the force and passion of Myers’ writing overcomes the simplification of his characterisation.
beastings is a page-turner and, unusually, part of its appeal is Myers’ limited use of language. Commas and punctuation are omitted from much of its descriptions and dialogue, while speech is not indicated by punctuation. This enhances the novel, acting not so much as experimentation as a way to understand the isolation of the characters, their sense of the imposing landscape around them; “layer upon layer of fading shapes silently stacked”. It creates a novel of interior dialogues. Isabelle is (after all) mute but we are drawn into her mind, articulate and alive to the shifting beauty of the landscape around her, through the immediacy of the description.
Any Cop?: Benjamin Myers’ work ought to be supported. He is drawing on a regional voice for its universal meaning, building a mythology of the Cumbrian fells that has an ambition, individuality and consistency that bodes well for his next novel (and all the others that will follow).