» Book Review
An Introspective Journey
Beast: A Novel
by Paul Kingsnorth
Graywolf, 2017, $16
We only need to look around ourselves and the world to know there are many things wrong with our society: How our comforts have made us lethargic, how our technology only divides us, and how the lack of empathy between different cultures has only deepened in recent years. This is the rabbit-hole that Beast invites us to plunge down, in a beautiful exercise of stream-of-thought and self-reflection. Paul Kingsnorth’s poetic prose takes us into the mind of Edward Buckmaster, who has fled his normal life to live in solitude, high in the English moors. While this is not a new concept, Kingsnorth’s novel is original in its form and offers a tilted perspective that gives the narrative a unique voice.
Beast is the second novel to a trilogy. The first novel, The Wake, published in 2014, was that same year longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, won the Gordon Burn Prize. Both books stand entirely on their own, with no need to read one before the other. The Wake has been praised for its inventive language, as Kingsnorth merged his own form of Old and Modern English to write it. Beast, on the other hand, experiments with sentence structure, and you’ll find, as the narrative progresses, certain rules are either lost or forgotten. It’s notable, at first, then it becomes a part of the book, and then a part of the character.
Edward Buckmaster’s voice is both simple and dynamic in the constant questioning and reasoning between which he traps the reader. He has fled to the moors to find himself, to let nature overtake him, and eventually find enlightenment, as if it were that easy. We find Edward at the beginning of the novel already more than a year into his self-imposed exile, standing in a freezing river and letting the cold water numb his body. “The river sang and kept singing,” and Edward welcomes pain and challenge in the forms of nature and his own fasting. It’s not long before a powerful storm finds him and breaks his body. From this point on the core of the story begins. The sun stops setting, his food runs out, and it’s not long before a creature of some sort begins to stalk him. There are no other characters to be found, except in his memories. Even then, they appear as wisps and phantoms.
While there are only hints as to what Edward leaves behind in his earlier life, we rarely find ourselves caring about them. He is here now, high in the moors, alone with the rawness of nature and the creature. Besieged with hardships, fog, and visions, Edward must push himself forward. The sense of time becomes lost, as well as any firm sense of reality. That’s not to say that Edward is an untrustworthy narrator. Rather, the effeteness of Kingsnorth’s prose wraps the fog around his readers as much as it does Edward. We get tangled in the “hot and muggy and still and the sky was a uniform white across the farmyard and over the top of the silent ash trees” sentences that go on and against each other, through Edward’s head and seemingly out into the moors.
While the strength of Beast lies in Kingsnorth’s unique prose, at times readers accustomed to plainer fare may find it difficult. The 164-page novel ends up feeling a bit longer, as it becomes necessary to put the book down at times to consider Edward’s thoughts or the surrounding circumstances he finds himself in. The prose insists that you digest each sentence properly, lest you miss some hidden meaning. It brings on a fascination at the level of language as opposed to plot and requires the reader to live inside the world of the novel and inside Edward’s head.
The search for meaning in life is as old and cliché as literature itself, but there is very little that is cliché here. The narration moves from one thought to the next in a translucent, stream-of-consciousness manner that conveys Edward’s thoughts as if they were your own, contemplating topics and issues that are very much prevalent in today’s world. Indeed, Kingsnorth’s elsewhere-stated love for nature, ecological advocacy, and warnings about global warming are underlining themes that come to life in his settings as well.
To read Beast is to make a journey of two sorts, as it may be impossible not to consider your own value as Edward considers his. That is the beauty of Beast—it captures that essence of self-doubt that haunts all of us. Though we may or may not find what we are looking for at the end, there is a sense that the answers have been looking for us as well. The third and final novel in this trilogy has been said to take place two thousand years after the story of Beast. One can only wonder what new form Kingsnorth’s imagination will take in that far future.