From Narc magazine, July 2014.
Words by Claire Dupree
Durham-born and West Yorkshire-based, Benjamin Myers is no stranger to country living; he climbed mountains as a boy, his family have a holiday home in the Lake District, he enjoys walking and romantic literature. So perhaps it’s no surprise that his latest novel, set in the wilds of Cumbria, is rich with landscape and nature.
Beastings is a book about many things; corruption, power, survival, motherhood, nature. A teenage girl, turned out of the workhouse and escaping the abusive clutches of the local priest, abducts a baby in her care and flees through the Cumbrian mountains. Pursued by the priest and a poacher sent to track her, the girl battles for survival amid a harsh landscape and her rapidly advancing past. Ben was inspired by a story in a true crime book. he says.
What began as a short story became, after eight rewrites, a novel of atmospheric beauty, reflective of the landscape it is set amongst, Beastings is a harsh, and at times shocking and unutterably sad, powerful work of fiction. And, as with previous novel Pig Iron, whose themes of savagery and survival in County Durham’s bleak and unloved communities resonated with humanity, the landscape is Beastings’ central character. Ben employs some stylistic quirks that cement his story and its themes – the girl is named only once, the Priest and Poacher are known only by their titles, the geographical location and the time it is set are left vague – and by doing so gives the story a universal appeal.
“I hoped it could be read in other countries and I wanted people to be able to relate to it, it’s about the landscape and escaping into the landscape. The characters are archetypes in a way; the girl is an innocent virginal character and the priest is the personification of evil. I wanted to write about these characters moving through the landscape and in a way it dehumanises them not to give them names.”
Similarly with the time-frame, the novel carries a sense of old worldliness, yet the themes are worryingly familiar. “The book’s set in the past but you read so many stories now about the church and celebrity abuse cases. It’s about that kind of abuse of power. If it was set in the modern day it couldn’t work, it’s just too hard to disappear these days. I’m trying to present the area as a cold and hostile place.” Another omission which ceases to matter almost as soon as you’ve noticed it, is that
Beastings contains no commas or speech marks, giving the story a taut edge. “If you remove the commas the reader gets pulled along. I wanted to keep it pacy and almost like a deluge of words.” Ben explains. “It was a conscious decision to remove them, but it made me reconsider the entire book. It was almost like having a spring clean.” As the tension of the chase heightens and the novel races towards its terrible conclusion, it’s Ben’s powerful and uncompromising language that keeps the reader gripped – at once sumptuous and stark, horrific and intense – Beastings is a novel of unflinching beauty, telling a richly imagined tale of a need from freedom from the abuse of power that can resonate in us all.