I’ve been meaning to read Boxer Beetle, Ned Beauman’s debut novel, since it was published by Sceptre (Hodder & Stoughton’s literary imprint) in 2010, but, being me, I am as ever characteristically behind the times. Beauman’s second novel, The Teleportation Accident, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year and he was named as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists this year so it is fair to say that by the time I actually managed to settle onto my sun lounger – *smug teacher on holiday alert* sorry… sort of – expectations were fairly high. I started it yesterday morning and finished it at about half-past midnight with the necessary breaks to take on nourishment and liquid.
The story winds between the present day and the mid-1930s weaving together the fates of Kevin Broom, a collector of Nazi memorabilia; Seth ‘Sinner’ Roach, a Jewish, gay, stunted boxer with only nine toes; the Erskine siblings and the increasingly sinister swastika-marked beetle, the Anophthalmus Hitleri (Time Out quoted on the back cover describes this as the “creepiest McGuffin of all time” and I quite agree). The narrative voice is striking not only in its oddity but in how accessible it is, finding himself in a difficult and dangerous situation, Kevin wonders as I’m sure many of us would, “what Batman would do”. He is also the sufferer of the strange, unpleasant condition trimethylaminuria (that I confess I thought was fictional until I literally just googled it) that earns him the nickname “Fishy” from his equally unsavoury and appropriately named employer Mr Grublock. He also collects Nazi memoribilia.
Beauman draws his characters beautifully in clear, in places comical, prose that leaves you thinking, “I know exactly what he means” with each new introduction. As the dual storylines unravel and become increasingly intertwined we encounte a whole host of these sketches from rabbis to fascists to entomologists but ‘sketch’ is the wrong word. Each character, from the absurd little doctor who, keen to prove the quality of his protective merchandise, shouts into the midst of an East End boxing match ending in chaos, “Will nobody assault my testicles?” to the draw-your-breath-between-your-teeth nasty gangster Albert Kölmel who throws cats into deep-fat fryers; every character is drawn with incisive precision and detail.
This is my favourite thing about Beauman’s writing and it extends beyond his characterisation, throughout the writing it is sharp, clean and witty. Its comic instances do not detract from its unsettling ones and he creates these moments where the reality of your world is subsumed by the colour and clarity of his. He takes ideas and feelings that you, somehow, could never quite articulate and hits them dead on with a lucidity and again, a precision that I (with my writing hat on) would kill for. When we’re driving with Kevin at night, London feels “like a whispered conversation between streetlights” and when, on the very same page, we smell a corpse, “the rot already coming on like an old dull blade being slowly sharpened” we cannot help but believe in and submit to a world so closely and exactingly drawn. It almost feels like geometr but with none of that discipline’s angular rigidity.
On top of that, the pace is great, it’s got real fluency to it: both plots rattle along nicely as they come together with a sustained sense of suspense and mystery crafted into the very structure of the text. I really don’t want to spoil any of it so I think I’ll have to stop typing now, suffice to say, read it and enjoy it for yourselves. The thought of The Teleportation Accident sitting on my other half’s bedside table at home in (currently) sunnny North West London is almost enough to make me wish away the rest of this holiday in sunny South West France.