The plot is simple: a young workhouse girl, having been found a job as a servant, absconds when she discovers the father of the household physically abusing his baby. The girl takes the child with her and runs – there is no real plan, nowhere to run to. She just has to get away. It isn’t long before she is missed and the local priest, assisted by an able poacher, sets off on her trail. The novel follows the girl (we never know her name, nor the that of the baby – whose sex is never even revealed) as she flees, trying to survive in the wild, becoming increasingly exhausted and malnourished.
The runaway is shown some kindness by strangers, but only temporarily before she moves on again. The portrayal of nature and the landscape is harsh and so are the people. The Priest is an ugly character, immoral and hypocritical; as the novel progresses, his reason for wanting to run the girl to ground becomes apparent. When they finally encounter one another the conflict is brutal and terrifying.
Reading this felt like all my bad dreams – running, running, always scared and looking behind. Finding a place to rest for a while before having to be on my feet again. Blisters, hunger, a crying baby, rain, dark. The relief of water, a wash, a drink. Then scrambling again, the danger always just out of sight on the periphery of your consciousness, but you have to keep moving to get away from it. A nightmare.
When I was at studying literature at University, I think my critical analysis skills were probably at their height. About 30 years ago! Nowadays I read for pleasure and entertainment, not to pass exams and so, after years of laying unused, my critical skills have diminished. I missed them whilst reading Benjamin Myers’ ‘Beastings‘. The text is rich in imagery, punctuation during dialogue is non-existent and scarce in many places, adding to the pace of the narrative. I felt I could have got more to the heart of it, as if true insight was evading me.
I’m not sure this is a book I can say I enjoyed – admire, certainly, this is powerful and arresting writing. A Portico Literary prize winner, it would almost certainly provoke a lot of discussion as a book group choice. Nevertheless, it has made a lasting impression: all I kept thinking about was people for whom terror, running, hiding is a permanent state – refugees, the homeless, conscripted child soldiers, trafficked slaves, illegal immigrants….. how terrifying it must be to never be able to relax, rest, breathe, for fear of being caught.