Rachel Joyce’s latest book, Miss Benson’s Beetle left me feeling happy with the world.
The story tells of Miss Margery Benson’s trip to New Caledonia from England in 1950 to find a previously unknown golden beetle, something she had dreamed of doing her whole life.
Margery was a middle-aged home economics teacher at a girl’s school when one day, driven to despair by her miserable life in post-war England and by her horrible students, she stole her deputy principal’s new boots and quit her job, deciding almost on the spur of the moment to travel to a remote mountain region in New Caledonia.
Margery advertised for an assistant who could speak French, take notes and generally assist her in her travels but at the last minute employed Enid Pretty after she was let down by her first preference. Enid was a flirtatious and unlikely young woman who was incapable of many of the tasks Margery wanted in an assistant, but who was kinder-hearted than Margery at least initially deserved, tending to an extremely sea-sick Margery throughout most of the journey to Australia. However, when they arrived in Brisbane Enid told Margery she wouldn’t be continuing with her to New Caledonia, as she was desperate for a baby and intended to make a life with a man she had met on the ship.
When Enid realised the man she planned to marry was a cruel, unpleasant bully, she escaped him at the last minute and hopped on the sea plane to New Caledonia with Margery.
Once in New Caledonia Margery and Enid found themselves enmeshed into a social whirl of British expatriates who didn’t seem to appreciate living in paradise, and caught up in bureacracy, unable to obtain the visa they required to travel to the mountain until Enid eventually found a way to get Margery to the mountain.
I liked watching Margery and Enid learn and grow from each other. Their backstories were told gradually and added enormously to my appreciation of their characters. I particularly enjoyed reading about their sea voyage to Australia.
I would describe Miss Benson’s Beetle as an adventurous comfort read.