Edward Buckmaster has been living alone on the northwestern moors of England for “five seasons.” He keeps largely to himself, even from the reader; we don’t know much about until; later. ‘From the east I came to this high place,” he says, “to be broken, to be torn apart, beaten, cut into pieces. I came here to measure myself against the great emptiness.” What we don’t know is whether that great emptiness is what he came to or what he came from.
For five seasons, he lives his chosen life. And then comes a storm. When he awakens, he finds himself in the yard outside a farmhouse; he’s seriously injured with what looks like a broken knee, severe pain in his chest, and five claw marks across his stomach. He’s also disoriented; everything seems strange, including the sky, which has become entirely white. He hears no birds, and no other sounds.
Beast by British novelist and writer Paul Kingsnorth is one of most unusual novels I’ve read. It’s the second in what Kingsnorth calls the “Buckmaster Trilogy” (the first being The Wake) but it’s a standalone novel. The time for the narrative is likely contemporary, but the only clues are a reference to a sleeping bag and a bottle of pain relievers. Beast has many of the trappings of a dystopian novel, but it’s not one in the commonly understood sense. The dystopia seems to lie more inside Edward Buckmaster, a man who thought he knew what he was doing but finds himself unmoored and untethered.
After a period of recovering from his injuries, Buckmaster goes walking to find other people and to find food. But he only finds two things: an empty church dating back to Anglo-Saxon times and a glimpse of a large, dark animal moving quickly across the unpaved road. The church offers no answers, so he goes looking for the beast, as it calls it, mapping out a grid on a map that will allow him to search one square mile every day.
Buckmaster will indeed find the beast, but not when or where he’s looking for it.
Kingsnorth is the author of the two novels, The Wake (2015) and Beast (2017), and a collection of poems, Kidland: And Other Poems (2011). He’s also the author of three non-fiction works: One No, Many Yeses: A Journey to the Heart of the Global Resistance Movement (2003); Real England: The Battle Against the Bland (2009); and Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays (2017).
Beast is a one-character story often told in broken and run-on sentences and without the use of quotation marks (since Buckmaster rarely actually speaks, the quotation marks aren’t needed). It’s about a man’s relationship to the land and with himself. It’s about both exterior and interior landscapes. It’s about finding peace.
It’s a strangely beautiful story.