Monday 30 August 2010

Box Clever

It's always exciting when you read something completely out of your comfort zone (if you should have such a thing) and you find that you absolutely love it. This happened to me months and months ago when I read Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman. Boxing, beetles, Nazis... none of these are on my hitlist of must-haves for books, and yet Beauman's novel is one of the most interesting and compelling that I've read this year. Sadly I didn't write my thoughts down at the time, and now that it's actually been published, I'm having to cast my mind far, far back to remember what I thought... with the help of Claire's review and Lynne's review! Sorry if I've missed others...

Boxer, Beetle flits back and forth between two time periods - in one, trimethylaminuria sufferer and Nazi-paraphernalia collector Kevin (also known as Fishy) is investigating the work of scientist Philip Erskine. Erskine occupies the other time period, in the 1930s, where he encounters Seth "Sinner" Roach. Sinner is a five foot tall Jewish man who, despite his stature, is incredibly good at boxing. Which catches the attention of a man interested in eugenics. Oh, and beetles. Hence the title - alongside investigating Sinner, and paying for the privilege of examining him over a period of time, Erskine is trying to develop a strain of very resilient beetles. As you do. Oh, before I go further, I have to mention the first line - which really grabbed me into the novel, as well as putting a smile on my face:

In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and imagine Joseph Goebbels' forty-third birthday party.
Well, don't we all? I should add hear that Kevin isn't a Nazi sympathiser - nor, of course, is Ned. Kevin collects the memorabilia without having the slightest fascist leaning. Unlike quite a few of those roaming around 1930s London.

But East End London isn't the only place we see in the 1930s - Erskine whisks Sinner off to a country house, and the family of his fiance (I think... as I said, I read it a long time ago) Evelyn. Evelyn is a rather fab character, a composer of atonal, avant-garde music. She makes the mistake of asking Sinner whether he likes avant-garde music (remember, this is the working-class lad who likes beating people up, swearing and joining gangs):
"I'm quite sure you would," said Evelyn, "I can almost invariably tell." Evelyn was aware that she didn't compeltely convince when she made knowing remarks like this, especially to someone like Sinner with that gaze of his, but she didn't see how her repartee was supposed to gain any poise when she had absolutely nobody to practise on at home. If she tried to deliver a satirical barb at dinner her father would just stare at her until she wanted to cry. And Caroline Garlick's family were lovely but the trouble was they laughed rather too easily, rather than not at all - it wasn't quite the Algonquin Round Table. She was convinced that if she had been allowed to go to Paris she would have had lots of practice, and of course me lots of people like this boy, but as it was, if she ever met any genuine intellectuals - or any beyond their neighbour Alistair Thurlow - they would probably think she was hopelessly childish. For about a week she'd tried to take up heavy drinking, since heavy drinkers were so often reputed to be terrific conversationalists, but most of the time she just fell asleep.

This isn't, to be honest, the main tone of the novel. This humour, and this sort of almost Wodeshousian character, are drowned out by violence and antipathies and all sorts of terrifying things. Sinner is a pretty unremittingly horrible person. But Beauman's writing is so good, the pace so well judged, and the climax so dramatic that I couldn't help admiring this novel to the hilt.

It is difficult to get across my enjoyment of this, because I can't point to any of the characters or any aspects of the plot which appealed. If I were just to read a synopsis of Boxer, Beetle, I'd probably steer well clear. That's why I'm not going a 'Books to get Stuck into' feature today - I just can't think of anything along the same lines. So you'll just have to take my word for it, until you get your hands on the novel - Ned Beauman is a very talented writer, and if he can make this novel addictive for me, just imagine what he's capable of!

For more from Ned Beauman, pop back tomorrow - I'll be posting an interview he was kind enough to do with me... find out what inspired Boxer, Beetle, what Beauman's doing next, and a little about his famous mother...


  1. No comfort zones for me, but very pleased to read your review. If I can find this in one of "my" libraries I'll borrow it and see what I think.

    As always many thanks for an interesting review.

  2. Great to see you writing about this one Simon...does this mean you are a convert and have now finally read a good book written after 1950:-)and can we expect to see you reading more contemporary fiction? That would be good.
    I also have to ask the obvious question, how the violence and the language squared with your dislike of both in fiction ?

  3. Glad that you enjoyed this one too, Simon. Ned Beauman is an exceptional talent and I was delighted to see Boxer, Beetle nominated for the Guardian First Book prize.

    The 1930s setting (in part), the wealth of historical detail, the heightened violence and language, the superb writing, the humour and despicable characters were all things I enjoyed and that will stay with me. I don't believe in comfort zones ;)

  4. Hey there Simon, have been following your blog for a short time but have been enjoying it, so I'm giving you the One Lovely Blog Award!

    Hope you don't mind me leaving this comment on this post, I didn't know where else to leave it :)

  5. Sounds interesting, but yes, based on your review, I'm wondering about how far outside my comfort zone it would fall. Looking forward to the interview.

  6. Jolly good old bean !

  7. Peter - you're welcome! Did you manage to track it down?

    Lynne - Haha! I hope I've matured a bit, and read more widely... but I have actually dialled down the amount of modern fiction I read at the mo. I read so much in my first year of blogging, and I missed having more of a range. So... lots of good books written after 1950, but my favourites remain in the years before that! As for the violence and language - I must confess I skipped some of the more violent parts. I've developed a knack for being able to skim past violent bits instinctively! The language felt part and parcel of the character, and not just done to show how edgy the writer was, so I coped... ;)

    Claire - I hadn't spotted that he'd won that - I'm pleased we met him, and I nabbed an interview, before he got far too famous for the blogs - I think it might well happen!

    Emily Jane - thank you, thank you!

    Susan - I was surprised by how much I liked it. But that doesn't mean I'm getting rid of my comfort zone, no way!

    Anon - well, quite!


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