Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012), follows main character Harold on an improbable long walk across England as he comes to terms with his failures. Similarly, Miss Benson’s Beetle, Joyce’s fifth novel, tracks main character Margery Benson as she aims to make her own unlikely journey to an island called New Caledonia in the southwestern Pacific, to track down an elusive golden beetle.
In 1950, the war is over, but rationing and shortages continue in London. Margery is a lonely 40-something soul, teaching home economics to snarky high school girls. When the girls go too far in making fun of her, Margery snaps and flees the school, snatching a pair of lacrosse boots in fury and frustration, an act that reminds her of her long-deferred goal of finding the golden beetle of New Caledonia.
But it’s a preposterous dream. Margery has no academic credentials, no passport, no knowledge of New Caledonia and no money. Nevertheless, she persists, planning her journey and interviewing assistants. What follows is an epic, obstacle-filled journey from London to Australia and at last to New Caledonia, which in 1950 is a French colony. Margery and her assistant, Enid Pretty, arrive on the island woefully underprepared for the final part of their quest.
Miss Benson’s Beetle balances the light— including comic moments that highlight the discrepancies between stolid Margery and flighty Enid—with the dark, such as Margery’s trauma-filled youth. As with Harold Fry, the main character’s inner journey is the real one. Margery finds human connection she didn’t know she was missing and, through that connection, a deeper purpose in life. The novel also has a marvelous, economical way of contrasting the drab gray of postwar London with the vivid colors, sounds and smells of New Caledonia.
Joyce’s fiction has been slotted into “uplit,” a publishing term for novels that contain some dark moments but ultimately offer an uplifting ending. For readers who seek escape, Miss Benson’s Beetle is just right.