Those who read Paul Kingsnorth’s much lauded novel “The Wake” might have been intimidated by the book’s use of the author’s version of Old English. I had a go at it, but quickly felt puzzled so put it aside vowing to go back to it again (unsurprisingly, I haven’t yet). There is no such trouble with understanding the language in “Beast” – but getting at just what Kingsnorth means by this convoluted soul-searching quest will be confusing. And rightly so! He’s asking questions rather than posing answers with this fascinating story. However, the author also uses subtle variations in his style and his composition of language over the course of the novel. Gradually grammar breaks down. Tense bends as time is warped. The first person narrator eventually changes his tone from a proud capital I to a lower case i. At a few points, the narrative breaks off completely mid-sentence only to pick up again after a couple blank pages to find him in another place. Language itself becomes an inadequate vehicle for what he’s trying to convey: “It is so hard to put into words into these clumsy words that say nothing.” The scenes become increasingly hallucinatory as the story progresses so in one paragraph he’ll be hiking over the moors and in another he’ll be wandering through “slums” with “barefoot black children” who encourage him to jump naked into a freezing lake or he’ll appear on the wing of a plane that’s plummeting the ground. Whether these are fantasies, delusions or visions of another time and place are debatable. Whatever their meaning, I found his journey fascinating just to see what bizarre things Edward would encounter next and where his logic would take him.
It’s interesting thinking about this book in relation to other novels such as Evie Wyld’s “All the Birds, Singing” which similarly features a recluse – in this case, a sheep farmer who lives on her own on an island. Similarly, there is a mysterious and threatening something prowling about her land (and killing some of her sheep). It’s not surprising that someone living on their own would be prone to fear of attack as they are relatively defenceless without the support of a larger civilization. Confronting this fear or demon might mean only overcoming psychological obstacles which cause that fear in the first place. Equally, it’s interesting to consider “Beast” in relations to Kazuo Ishiguro’s most recent novel “The Buried Giant”. Instead of a lone journey, his novel features an older couple on a quest through a seemingly medieval landscape to find their son. The threat comes in this case from what has been buried and forgotten: a giant. Similarly, Edward encounters mythical beings which function both as real physical threats and manifestations of his subconscious. He proclaims “Yes there were giants in the Earth it was all real all of it.” It’s as if there is an inversion of reality as we know it so fairy tales are true and our tangible existence is false. In doing so, Kingsnorth and these other authors force us to question everything that we take for granted.
The compelling question at the heart of this novel is whether Edward’s solitary practice actually leads him to greater knowledge or total despair. He is absolutely convinced that “There has to be a secret.” But I wonder if there really is a secret? Maybe there is no mystery to the deep questions Edward prods through his rigorous rejection of everyone and everything. Maybe he’s living the most honest existence possible. Or maybe he’s a coward. This is a dilemma that Kingsnorth artfully poses in this accomplished and compelling novel.