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Clasped like tiny gold jewels… Miss Benson’s Beetle, a gem of a book

Inside the envelope, a black-and-white photograph. It showed two women. An entomologist and her assistant. The entomologist stood right in the centre, a young woman with a big smile on her face, her hand stretched out to reach the camera…. Freya moved her magnifying glass to the assistant. She was much older. Too old, really, to be in the field.”

I always find writing reviews of fiction a bit fraught as I am very conscious, that for some, including me, spoilers are the work of the Devil 🙂

My mission then, is to do my best to convey the feel of the book without giving away too much of the plot. Let me begin by saying that this is a fantastic book and I was very honoured to be involved, albeit in a minor way, as one of the entomologists that Rachel consulted before she embarked on her literary adventure.  Chick lit is defined as works of heroine-centred narratives that focus on the trials and tribulations of their individual protagonists, and is, more often than not, used as a dismissive and derogatory term. Yes, this book is heroine-centred, and yes it focuses on the trials and tribulations of Miss Benson and her somewhat erratically (and that is putting it mildly), behaved travelling companion, Enid Pretty. Nevertheless, let me assure you, this is not chick lit, this is a novel of substance, but written in a very approachable and accessible style.

The backbone of this story, and given that beetles are invertebrates, this is possibly not the best term to use, but as chitinous exo-skeleton doesn’t really do the job, I will stick with the vertebrate reference, is the quest for a possibly mythical golden beetle. Fear not non-entomologists, this is not an entomological textbook, filled with abstruse terms and incomprehensible minutiae. It is the very opposite. It is many things; it is a thriller, a love-story, a tragedy, a mystery, a tale of frustrated ambition, a window into the past and present, and above all, a story of fulfilment.

Not everything is as it seems as you will find when you reach the passage I quoted at the beginning of this review. Set mainly in 1950, but moving from before the Great War until the early 1980s this book will transport you on an emotional roller-coaster of a ride from London to New Caledonia, accompanied by a sinister stalker, a couple of unexpected stops along the way and some immensely amusing pen-portraits which really capture the period.

In summary, an unexpected friendship, murder, mystery, burglaries, things that go bump in the night, poignant, funny, and to cap it all, not all is what it seems at first sight.  As an entomologist, I must also compliment Rachel on how she has managed to capture the entomological aspects of the story and in particular, the passion that we feel for our discipline and our favourite species.

A must read for all, and, in my opinion, Rachel’s best book to date.

Rachel Joyce (2020) Miss Benson’s Beetle, Doubleday, ISBN 978-0-8575-2198- 9 £16.9:9

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