(Graywolf Press, 2017)
The Wake—Paul Kingsnorth’s 2014 debut novel, which chronicles the life of an Anglo-Saxon during the Norman Conquest—has since gained a disturbing resonance with the recent surge and codification of nationalism that is Brexit. Its narrator, Buccmaster, laments the loss of pagan gods stamped out by “the bocs and the preosts the bells the laws of the crist” and grieves for a ravaged homeland beset by foreigners. In the London Review of Books last year, Nick Richardson suggested that this makes for “uncomfortable reading,” a quality that extends to Beast, Kingsnorth’s second novel. Often characterized as a spiritual sequel of sorts, it would also be appropriate to think of each book as the other’s inverse. Whereas Buccmaster, along with the whole of England, is forced into the rest of the world, Edward Buckmaster, who inhabits the same lands one thousand years later in Beast, plucks himself out of it—with no less violence. Twenty pages in, he suffers an unspecified accident, mangling his leg at the knee and sustaining strange wounds to the torso.
From there, Buckmaster’s narration becomes increasingly erratic. His isolation is made all the more acute by inexplicable visions and the search for an elusive, catlike beast. Is he hallucinating, wading through purgatory, or are these happenings real? The latter-most option seems unlikely, as he could well be brain-damaged from the accident, even dead. Regardless, his wanderings are all mediated by unhinged and paratactic bursts of thought, drawing the reader right to the edge of an increasingly fleeting notion of reality. The Wake, on the other hand, is a novel loyal to history, though its portion of unreality resides elsewhere: the novel itself is written in a “shadow language”—a combination of Old and Modern English—and further, its world is one governed by old gods and new ones alike, devils from across the Channel, and the terror of natural phenomena (a comet passing through the night sky causes no small amount of anxiety).
Though much slimmer and with significantly lower stakes than The Wake—which succeeds despite (and possibly due to) the burden of working in an invented language—Edward Buckmaster’s narrative doesn’t retain the sturdiness of the Anglo-Saxon tale. It can at times wax on and on about the inscrutability of nature and what exists beyond language. But Beastis still engrossing and impressive, and Kingsnorth is at his best when he forces his readers to inhabit a body, to feel the rawness of a mind on the cusp of radical change. Notable, too, are the ways his works are dialogic, both with each other and the frightening political turn toward nativism. Two competing, contradictory eschatologies are what give these stories so much depth. Buccmaster’s world ends with integration and modernization, Buckmaster’s through a retreat from those same things, plus the vengeful resurgence of nature: “Their roots will wrap around all that we were and our lives will rot down in their litter and theirs will be a silent Earth of roots and leaves and thin grasping and there will be no place for us in their world at all.”