Rachel Joyce’s wonderful 2012 debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was about a man who walked 600 miles to see an old friend and found comfort and wisdom on the way. Its follow up, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, told the story of that friend, a woman who was dying having missed out on something in life. Miss Benson’s Beetle is also a pilgrimage of sorts, this time made by Margery Benson, one of a stifled generation of “leftover women” who are marking time in the aftermath of the second world war.
Fortysomething Miss Benson is a disappointed domestic science teacher, showing girls “how to iron men’s shirts, and boil vegetables”, and feeling as though even blue sky is rationed – until a final straw of humiliation inspires her to set off to New Caledonia on a reckless mission to find an undiscovered species of golden beetle. It’s an excellent premise, and one that pans out almost as heartwarmingly as you’d expect, but with some powerful, moving and sometimes violent surprises en route.
Margery acquires an unlikely assistant, Enid Pretty – all yellow hair and inappropriate footwear – and together they survive comic adventures on boats and through customs and at the British consul’s garden party, finding new reserves of “gumption” as they do. Each has a sad past, and neither discusses it, but in a series of tender moments they realise that each makes the other braver and better than she thought she could be.
Many characters carry with them the damage of conflict – from Margery, who lost her father and brothers because of the first world war, to her bizarre stalker Mr Mundic, a traumatised former PoW, to the delightfully mean character Mrs Pope, the consul’s wife, who resents our two heroines because “they had found a way to be themselves”.
While the journey of self-discovery may be predictable, Miss Benson’s Beetle is a joy of a novel, with real insight into the lives of women, the value of friendship and the lasting effects of war. “There was always darkness,” realises Margery, “and in this darkness was unspeakable suffering, and yet there were also the daily things – there was even the search for a gold beetle – and while they could not cancel the appalling horror, they were as real.”
• Miss Benson’s Beetle is published by Doubleday (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.