By Adam Norris
Unlike the other reviews that have featured in Bellbottom this year, Beast is not a new release. Though I’d heard of Paul Kingsnorth from his widely-praised debut, The Wake, I hadn’t read it. But sitting there on the Bellingen Library shelf, with its folkloric illustrations and arresting typography, Beast seemed well-suited to a December that promised high winds and marauding rain, to views of sodden fields and forest boughs bent heavy in the flood.
The novel’s strength is tone rather than narrative, which makes for both compulsion and frustration. There is a story, to be sure, though at times the sense of introspection can grow intrusive. Yet this is a minor complaint when faced with Kingsnorth’s sentences. They are beautiful things, laced with a sense of imminence. They are elemental, near pagan, concerned with an ineffable natural world that holds revelations few of us are willing to receive. Our narrator – and only real character, save for a somewhat anthropomorphised world at large – is Edward Buckmaster, recent hermit of a deep-distant glen in contemporary England, who has forsaken the modern age and made an existential pilgrimage to the moss and moors surrounding an abandoned barn.
From the east I came, to this high place, to be broken, to be torn apart, beaten, cut into pieces. I came here to measure myself against the great emptiness.
This is not a literal emptiness – part of the strength of Kinsnorth’s prose is the startling clarity of the world around of narrator, all riven roads and storms that have swept in from some great, calamitous reckoning – but the certainty that below the skin of our modern lives is a void, shellacked with possessions, family, friends. Buckmaster seeks to know himself and the world, and in surrendering himself, the world might seek to know him.
Something out there – some beast – Buckmaster hunts, while he too is hunted. Real, imagined? Buckmaster’s days have begun to fray, his dreams are of hares with human eyes; phantoms and his own projections are becoming one.
I love this man’s writing – the substance, the style. Beast is slight, but immense. A gripping, ominous read.