BOXER, BEETLE by Ned Beauman

Book Quote:

“Normally you can’t get a proper look at your own conscience because it only ever comes out to gash you with its beak and you just want to do whatever you can to push it away; but put your conscience in the cage of this paradox, where it can slither and bark but it can’t hurt you, and you can study it for as long as you wish. Most people don’t truly know how they feel about the Holocaust because they’re worried that if they think about it too hard, they’ll find out they don’t feel sad enough about the 6 million dead, but I’m an expert in my own soul.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  SEP 13, 2011)

First-time author Ned Beauman really lays it out there in the first chapter of this extraordinary novel, which begins with an imaginary surprise birthday party thrown by Hitler for Joseph Goebbels in 1940. It is an exhilarating, outrageous opening to a book that will in fact take a quite different course. But it is important as a way of establishing the moral parameters (and this IS a moral book) and freeing up an imaginative space in which Beauman can explore some ideas that are normally unapproachable.

Actually, Beauman reminds me of nobody so much as Evelyn Waugh. He writes about the same period (England in the 1930s), he inhabits some of the same milieux (a house party in some noble pile), he shares or even tops Waugh in his outrageous use of absurd humor, and he writes about serious subjects at heart. His debut novel explores the world of British Fascism in the years before WWII. Despite the opening, the German Nazis never make an appearance other than as tutelary deities. In its place is a gaggle of mostly well-connected amateurs, a sort of lunatic fringe of the upper class, pursuing theories of eugenics and a universal world language. Yes, they had their real-life counterparts; Lord Claramore’s family is in the book, the Erskines, somewhat resembles the Mitfords; Evelyn Erskine, the daughter who shows her independence by becoming an atonal composer, is virtually identical to Elizabeth Lutyens; and Sir Oswald Mosley, the real-life leader of the British Union of Fascists, makes a cameo appearance, but his 1936 march of supremacy through the largely-Jewish London East End is shown as the farcical debacle it really was.

This period background is viewed from a modern frame. Kevin Broom, the narrator and a collector of Nazi memorabilia, gets caught up in a rivalry which leaves two other collectors dead and Kevin himself in danger of his life. The goal of the rivalry is not at first clear, but it turns upon a letter from Hitler to British scientist Philip Erskine thanking him for an unusual gift, and some as-yet-unspecified connection between Erskine and a diminutive London Jewish boxer named “Sinner” Roach.

Do not look to the story for any great plausibility, though. It propels the plot with exhilarating efficiency, but it is more in tune with the popular adventure stories of the earlier part of the century than with modern expectations of verisimilitude; Kevin’s role model, for instance, is Batman. Waugh used such devices also, but Beauman is very much of his own time in translating Waugh’s absurdity into shock or even disgust. Kevin, for instance, has trimethylaminuria, a genetic disease that makes his bodily secretions smell of rotting fish; there is also strong undercurrent of homosexual violence, which may turn some readers off the book.

Which would be a pity, because the best parts are very good indeed. I am thinking especially of a dinner conversation in New York involving Sinner, two Rabbis, and an American architect, showing how easily some humanitarian endeavors such as mid-century town planning may be perverted into crypto-fascism. Or a brilliant discursion on the quest for a universal language that would unite mankind, discussing real attempts such as Esperanto and Volapük together with the fictional Pangaean, invented by an Erskine ancestor. Or Philip Erskine’s own work with beetles, breeding them for extraordinary aggression and strength, an obvious parallel to the human Eugenics programs of the Nazis for the enhancement the Master Race — though the principle had earlier advocates in both Britain and America. This is a valuable and serious subject for a novelist (it is also examined in Simon Mawer’s excellent Mendel’s Dwarf), and though Beauman chooses an absurd and at times offensive vehicle in which to present it, his obvious intelligence and meticulous linking of his story to real events makes this a far better book than a mere summary might suggest.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 39 readers
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury USA (September 13, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Ned Beauman blog  and website
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:



September 13, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , , ,  · Posted in: Debut Novel, Facing History, Humorous, Satire, United Kingdom

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