Published by Doubleday
Publication date – 23 July 2020
Source – review copy
It is 1950. In a devastating moment of clarity, Margery Benson abandons her dead-end job and advertises for an assistant to accompany her on an expedition. She is going to travel to the other side of the world to search for a beetle that may or may not exist.
Enid Pretty, in her unlikely pink travel suit, is not the companion Margery had in mind. And yet together they will be drawn into an adventure that will exceed every expectation. They will risk everything, break all the rules, and at the top of a red mountain, discover their best selves.
This is a story that is less about what can be found than the belief it might be found; it is an intoxicating adventure story but it is also about what it means to be a woman and a tender exploration of a friendship that defies all boundaries.
Margery Benson is going to travel to the other side of the world to find a beetle no one knows exists. She needs a companion. That companion has to be competent, driven and tenacious. She most certainly can’t be flighty, send a job application on the back of a shopping list or be unable to spell. But when circumstances leave Margery with no choice but to invite Enid Pretty along, she doesn’t know that by doing so, she will change the lives of both of them forever.
Miss Benson’s Beetle is an adventure, a journey not only of entomological discovery but of self discovery. It transports the reader from a smoggy London to the forest mountain sides of New Caledonia.
Margery and Enid could not be more different characters. Margery is solid, in her beliefs, ideals and in person. She is aware that she is not dainty or pretty. She is momentarily disturbed but then relieved when she discovers her comfort in donning men’s clothes for example, even more relieved that she doesn’t have to conform to society’s requirements out in the mountains, that her practicality is a virtue. Enid is dainty. She likes getting dressed up, dying her hair and painting her nails. She enjoys attracting men and seemingly frivolous conversation. Margery prefers peace and quiet. Enid’s near endless stream of discussion and natter at first annoys Margery. Then it comes to calm her. She appreciates Enid’s tenacity, her determination to look on the positive side of life and marvels at Enid’s unwavering belief that Margery will find her beetle. As the story progresses it becomes apparent that both women have not had ideal lives up until they met. They both have issues that have followed them and which threaten their current situations and future decisions.
There is a gentle humour that runs through the novel. It works its way into Margery’s life deftly, making sure that the story does not become too melancholy.
When the pair get to Australia the contrast with grey London is something to behold. Margery finds the brilliant sun and the exotic flowers almost too unreal. The heat is relentless, something she is not accustomed to. She is also bewildered by the fact that here, on the other side of the world, there is no rationing. There is a sense of a new start. This contrasts with her first impressions of New Caledonia. This she views as behind war fatigued London. Shacks instead of houses, scruffy children. She thinks she can find solace in the British Consul and his crowd but realises she is not one of their people. As typhoons hit and the island recovers she realises that the people have a strength and a will to survive and respects them more for that.
I’ll admit, there were places where my attention waned, but not enough for me to want to stop reading. In fact there was something quite comforting about the book. It may have been the time period, 1950, with Britain still recovering from the war but with the scent of hope in the air. The descriptions of the places the women find themselves in are such that the reader can feel the rise and fall of the ship taking them to Australia. The migrant camp, with tin huts and women with feet in water can easily been seen. The mountainside shack the women live in is transformed before the reader’s eyes as Margery watches in quiet amazement as Enid turns it into a home. The reader takes every step as the pair hack their way through forest to make it to the top of the world.
There is much to enjoy in Miss Benson’s Beetle. There is the sense of adventure, contagious, that grows as Margery and Enid reach their final destination. The reader wills the pair on, wanting them to not only be successful in finding the beetle, but in shaking off the chains of the past and discovering the real them.
Margery sets off on the search of a rare golden beetle. What she discovers is something even rarer, a sense of self worth. In Enid she finds a true friend and she wonders how she could have ever thought that the pink suited, smoking woman with dyed blonde hair piled on her head was the wrong person to accompany her on her journey of growth.
This was book 2 in my 20 Books of Summer 2020 challenge.