Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce – a hymn to friendship and to the resourcefulness of women in a man’s world

I’m often drawn to the scenarios described on the backs of Rachel Joyce’s books. But not really enjoying The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry half as much as everybody else seemed to, I haven’t read any further. But looking for an audiobook, I came across Miss Benson’s Beetle and seeing it was read by the truly splendid Juliet Stephenson, I couldn’t resist. Soon I was immersed in the story, set in the early 1950s London, where dowdy, middle-aged schoolteacher Margery Benson has an epiphany.

It doesn’t take much to tip a schoolteacher over the edge, and imagine being a home science teacher in the rationing years, poorly paid and a hopeless cook. She struggles to maintain engagement in a class of sniggering girls. When one student draws a cruel caricature of her, Margery can bear it no longer. She steals a pair of brand new lacrosse boots belonging to the deputy head and decides to embark on a long dreamt-of adventure: to travel to New Caledonia in search of a gold beetle. She had seen it mentioned in her late father’s beetle book, but it has yet to be collected, named and sent to the Natural History Museum.

Margery needs an assistant and advertises. Of the three who reply, the only possible contender does a reference check on Margery and changes her mind. Mrs Pretty can’t write a letter that makes sense; the disagreeable Mr Mundic wants to take over as expedition leader, ready with a gun to fight off savages – clearly he has a screw loose. At the last minute, desperate for anybody really, Marjory writes offering the position to Enid Pretty.

At the train station, the two take a while to recognise each other as Enid is dressed in a tight pink suit, a ridiculous hat and dainty sandals decorated with pompoms. And why does she clasp her red valise as if her life depends on it? Margery is dressed in an ancient shabby suit, the lacrosse boots and a pith helmet. Somehow they make their connection to the ship that will take them to Australia, in spite of Enid not having a passport.

The two make an odd couple, Edith, a former cocktail waitress seems to be running away from something, constantly looking over her shoulder as if she’s being followed. But she has the streetwise knack of acquiring by fair means or foul anything they might need. If only she would stop talking. An array of difficulties – sea sickness, lost luggage, a tropical cyclone and so much more – forges an unexpected friendship. Yet things aren’t quite so simple as finding a beetle and setting off for home again.

The story is full of madcap scenes, some poignant revelations and life-or-death challenges as both women slowly open up about their past lives and the things they are afraid of. There’s also quite a lot about beetles – Margery has become quite the expert. I also enjoyed some of the minor characters, particularly the British wives who are stuck in New Caledonia because their husbands are there on business or as diplomats.

Bubbling through it all is a wry humour. I came away feeling the book was a wonderful hymn to friendship, and to women surviving in a man’s world, a world that in the shadows of World War II is shown to capable of horrific cruelty. And I was quite right about Juliet Stephenson – her reading is superb, bringing to life the two main characters hilariously. I am sure the novel is a brilliant read in print, but I do recommend the audiobook too. Miss Benson’s Beetle earns a four out of five from me.

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