Paul Kingsnorth’s novel “The Wake” followed the story of a man named Buccmaster as he witnessed the Norman Conquest of England, took part in guerrilla warfare against the invaders and grew increasingly unhinged as a result. His follow-up, “Beast,” plays out like a remix or cover version of its predecessor: Here, the narrator’s name is Buckmaster, the time is our own and the adversaries are much more internal. Well, except for the menacing creature perennially lurking in the distance that gives the novel its name.
When the novel opens, Buckmaster has lived in a kind of self-imposed exile for just over a year. He resides in an abandoned structure and describes his struggles to make it habitable: removing years of accumulated waste, creating a roof that doesn’t leak, establishing something resembling a floor. But that work may not be sufficient for much longer — early on, during a storm, he ponders the flaws in his shelter: “I’m sitting here near the stove, not looking up, willing the water not to land on the back of my neck.”
Soon enough, the roof collapses, injuring Buckmaster; from that point on, he navigates his surroundings in an increasingly broken state. At times his narration is meticulous, giving a crisp and full sense of the space around him. At others, he comes off as desperate, a man stretched beyond his breaking point and losing touch with the world around him. Consider: “I wanted to rage smash things throw them break through tear it all up bite bite bite until all was torn all was hanging down loose and dropping all was pain all was broke.” There’s also the matter of the creature that seems to be stalking him, which may be imaginary, metaphorical or very real. Kingsnorth’s novel would make for an excellent double bill with Evie Wyld’s 2013 “All the Birds, Singing,” another novel about a character in self-imposed exile with a sinister animal lurking in the distance.
Much of the power of “Beast” emerges from Kingsnorth’s juxtaposition of stylized language — sometimes rapturous, sometimes fragmented — with descriptions of a harsh landscape. This is a stark book in many senses of the word — just as Buckmaster’s narration has begun to give a sense of his inner self and his life before solitude, he enters into a primal struggle for survival. On its own, this is a taut, thrilling and mystifying narrative. Taken in tandem with “The Wake,” it forms a powerful meditation on violence, society and the nature of exile. Kingsnorth’s novel is relentless and philosophical, and this uneasy pairing gives it an abundance of raw power.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1, Brooklyn. He lives in New York.
By: Paul Kingsnorth.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 164 pages, $16.
Event: In conversation with Eric Utne, 7 p.m. Aug. 8, University Club, 420 Summit Av., St. Paul, sponsored by Subtext Books.