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'Miss Benson's Beetle' review: Teacher gets a lesson in thrills

Fed up with her pupils, a teacher begins

Fed up with her pupils, a teacher begins the adventure of a lifetime in "Miss Benson's Beetle." Credit: Random House

MISS BENSON'S BEETLE by Rachel Joyce (Dial Press, 368 pp., $18)

Like the 1939 movie version of "The Wizard of Oz," Rachel Joyce's "Miss Benson's Beetle" starts out in black and white and then opens up into glorious Technicolor.

In 1950, World War II is over but England remains grim and gray, with food and goods still rationed and everybody ground down. Middle-aged schoolteacher Margery Benson is chafing at her dreary life, picturing herself as "a beetle in a killing jar, dying slowly."

On the day that her students pass around a mocking cartoon depicting her as a lumpy woman with a nose like a potato and feet like planks, she has finally had enough.

She walks out of the classroom where she is teaching the loathed domestic sciences, inexplicably steals a fire extinguisher and a pair of boots from the teachers' lounge, gets on a bus, and heads off into a new life.

As a girl, the last bright moment in Margery Benson's life was the afternoon her gentle father introduced her to a book of amazing creatures — the Loch Ness Monster, the South African quagga, the golden beetle of New Caledonia. At the sight of the beetle, "her insides gave a lurch. ... It was as if Nature had taken a bit of jewelry and made an insect instead."

And so on the day that she steals the boots, Margery decides to sail to New Caledonia and find that beetle. It's a preposterous idea. Not only is the journey long and dangerous but the beetle most likely doesn't exist. But off she goes, with a paid companion she finds through the classified ads. Enid Pretty is feisty and tough, a blond woman in high-heeled boots who irritates Miss Benson by calling her "Marge." Somewhere along the way, Enid acquires a dog, which strains their relationship even more.

At the heart of the story is the slow, unlikely friendship that builds between the two women and how that friendship enables them both to grow stronger, more capable and more self-reliant. And if this sounds hokey, well, it's not. It's thrilling. New Caledonia, the women find, is the opposite of postwar England, a lush, flower-filled, intoxicating place.

There are delightful flashes of humor — Margery's first attempt at sleeping in a hammock comes to mind — but this isn't a sweet book. The women don't always act honorably — they fight, they bicker, they betray each other. Secrets and hurt from their past threaten to jeopardize their present. Joyce is excellent at depicting their pain and revealing their failings, and she has no qualms about repeatedly placing her characters in harm's way.

As Margery and Enid sail across the ocean and trek up mountains, they are stalked by a man, a war-shattered soldier who has become obsessed with Margery. At first he's a month behind them, but as the gap begins to close, the danger grows palpable.

The ending is not pat, nor fully happy. But it is hopeful. There is resilience, there is redemption, and there is beauty — great beauty. In Technicolor.

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