Beast by Paul Kingsnorth (2016) 168 p.
Paul Kingsnorth’s debut novel The Wake was a masterful account of a guerilla fighter during the Norman invasion of England; a story about a bitter and broken man who’s not as important or powerful as he thinks he is, written in an invented English “shadow tongue” to mimic the speech patterns of 11th century England. Following the novel’s success, Kingsnorth said he planned to write two more as a loose ‘England’ trilogy – a second novel set a thousand years later, in the present day, and a third novel set a thousand years after that, far in the future. These would obviously be very different books, but since The Wake was one of the best novels I read all year, I was looking forward to see what Kingsnorth did next.
Unfortunately Beast is a disappointment. The second novel of the trilogy, it’s set in the present day, but it could as easily have been set whenever. The narrator is living as a hermit on a rural moor, having walked away from his partner and infant child to go on a vision quest or something – Why I Gave Up Social Media, by Edward Buckmaster. (Given that Buccmaster of Holland in The Wake was an unreliable narrator and unsympathetic character, I don’t think Kingsnorth is necessarily supportive of this kind of neo-Luddism; on the other hand, given all his non-fiction I’ve read, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was.) Following an accident when his hut collapses on him, Buckmaster seems to be knocked into some kind of dream state or new reality – it’s all very disjointed-confused-narration-style, gradually degrading as the book goes on – in which the land is devoid of birdsong, the skies are eternally white, he cannot seem to leave the moor and he is being stalked by a strange, large creature.
Normally this kind of thing would be right up my alley, but the narration lost me. I loved The Wake’s shadow English, I loved the subtle clues that Buccmaster was dishonest, a liar, a psychopath. The narration of Beast, on the other hand, is the ramblings of a man slowly losing his mind. His plight is not particularly interesting given how unclear it is that it’s even really happening. Beast only runs for 168 pages, which was more than enough for my liking.
Having said that, perhaps in retrospect it will sit more comfortably as the bridging act in a trilogy. Kingsnorth is a talented writer, and given some of his published statements about environmentalism (he’s a self-professed “climate defeatist”) I still look forward to reading his depiction of England 1,000 years hence.