What kind of man am I? I wonder what I think about that now that I have spent a year here, watching the layers peel off, stripping myself back...
Welcome to Beast. This harrowing tale is the second installment in a trilogy of books by the author and environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth. The first, The Wake, was written in an imaginary hybrid of Old English, a language called the shadow tongue, grounded quite literally in eleventh-century Lincolnshire. Beast is set in the here-and-now. On a bleak moor.
Although superficially less arcane and impenetrable than the tangled weave of text that confronts the reader in The Wake, Beast is by no means a comfortable or comforting read. A strong heart, head and (sometimes) stomach is required. And a keen eye and ear.
Meet Edward Buckmaster, up to his knees and no good (we already sense from the opening) in an icy bog. On a moor in an unidentified location. Testing his bodily endurance in order, he claims, to find out if he is still alive. He came to the place he finds himself with no shoes, no preconceived plan, no hope. All he can say for certain is that he wants to feel nothingness. He needs to experience fear. Confrontation with what the raw elements can do to his body is foremost. Or seems to be. He (and we) are never really sure. Is the story a thinly-veiled allegory, a fictionalised plea for our diminishing wilderness? Or is Edward Buckmaster the sacrificial offering on the altar of nature's savagery?
The book is a short one and there is a sense of breathlessness throughout. What upon first appearance could have been a tale of one man's struggle for survival - think Robinson Crusoe transported from a desert island to the empty moorland - soon begins to reveal its true nature. Or does it? As a reader, this one was never sure. The clues to the protagonist's origins are as insubstantial and shrouded as the ramshackle decrepit farmhouse Edward Buckmaster shelters in. Paul Kingsnorth's prose dances and weaves around the mind as the story progresses. An what prose it is. The words are concise, the sentences either abrupt or long and unpunctuated. A sense of urgency and paranoia (ours?) accumulate as the story of a lost and disintegrating man proceeds apace.
Edward Buckmaster: Where has he come from that is so terrible as to warrant missing commas? Why has he walked out on his solid job in the city, abandoned his wife and his infant son for a torment? None of the usual background is provided by Kingsnorth. No flashback explanation, no root cause. All we have is relentlessness and diminishing hope. Not a narrative to recommend to the world-weary, you might think. However, the words gathered here and the form they take and the construct Kingsnorth has managed to conjure all come together beautifully and hauntingly to create something impressively off-beat and somehow true. The momentum of Beast thrums along like some urgent drum-beat, speeding up as it gathers its terrible momentum. The story is measured, quiet and nuanced, but at the same tells the tale of one man's personal apocalypse - an apocalypse to which we, as readers bare witness. This is the strength of the book. It leads us relentlessly to a place we feel as though we don't really want to go, much like it's anti-hero, Edward Buckmaster. It places the reader in the shoes and mind of a man teetering on the brink and at the same time offers us a comfortable front-row seat in a theatre of guilt where we act as voyeurs. But voyeurism is the fixation of the onlooker and so, we look on.
Listening to the absolute silence. Sensing a presence somewhere out there. Something in the mind of a man convinced that a badness lurks beneath everything he thought was real. This was and is the power of Beast, a novel of unremitting bleakness and painful honesty. A book about a man, a moor, an imaginary or perhaps real threat, a hunt and an ultimate confrontation with the self. Highly recommended.
A place of endless wonder without dragons. The home of the dodgy dialectic. A sanctuary for the frustrated and the terminally curious. Where debate meets damnation and humour lurks to surprise the unwary. From critical acclaim to diatribe. Don't be scared - come along for the ride.