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19Jul

Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce review – self-discovery in the South Pacific

The “up lit” novelist does more than warm our hearts in this 1950-set tale of one woman’s journey from mediocrity to adventure

Since her 2012 bestselling debut The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce has specialised in stories about overlooked people jolted out of their routines into unexpected situations that allow them to face the buried griefs that have kept them trapped in small lives. She might almost be credited with inspiring the recently popular “up lit” genre, but it would be a mistake to think of her novels as merely “heartwarming”, though the word is frequently attached to them. Joyce has a clear-eyed, unsparing view of regret, failure and loss, and the cost that life exacts from so many, even while she counters it with a belief in the resilience of the human spirit and the possibility of second chances.

Margery Benson shares these traits with Joyce’s previous protagonists, but is unhappy in her own way. In 1950 she is a frustrated teacher in her mid-40s, with a secret passion for beetles – an interest inspired by her father, who told her in 1914 of the fabled golden beetle of New Caledonia, shortly before he shot himself on learning that all four of his sons had been killed at Mons. A failed romance put paid to any hope of a career in entomology for Margery – not that she could have aspired to such a thing, except as a man’s assistant. “She was a woman who’d had a period of excitement, who’d dared to dream of adventure and the unknown, but who had retreated instead and made no further disturbance.”

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