Rating: 3.5 stars
I’m making my way through Magnus Mills’s back catalogue in a random manner. It suits the structured randomness of his writing.
The Restraint of Beasts was Mills’s debut. I’m finding it difficult to define as a novel. Is it whimsy? Is it satire? Is it crime? Whatever it is, it’s about an Englishman employed in Scotland as a fence layer. He unexpectedly finds himself foreman to a team of wilful Scots who, not unreasonably, have issues with the work expected of them from the big boss at the company. The big boss is a maniac. Our unnamed Englishman’s first task as foreman is to oversee the better completion of a shoddily finished job. He unexpectedly finds himself burying the client, whom one of the team has accidentally killed in a freak accident that might, if viewed from a different perspective, have been deliberate.
Things don’t really improve. The gang is despatched to a job south of the border in England. They live in a squalid caravan. They drink a lot. They attract the attention of two brothers who have been dabbling in the fencing trade and who persuade the gang to take on a job for them as a foreigner. Once again, they accidentally kill their official client, the man whose fence they’ve been sent to England to construct, and a pattern of disposing of the bodies of accidentally killed men begins to emerge.
There are elements of The Office, elements of Fawlty Towers. There are circular themes, repetitions of description, a creeping sense that the beasts being restrained aren’t the herds and flocks of the farming clients, but the three-man fencing gang itself.
The casual acceptance of accidental death and the unspoken agreement that it’s for them, and not the police, to deal with is presented in such a matter of fact way that it feels normal for them to be digging holes for bodies as part of the fence laying process. I’ll not look at the gateposts in a fence in quite the same way again.
The intricate detail of fencing gone into by the big boss when he’s explaining a job to the gang is simultaneously dull and fascinating. I feel as though I ought to genuflect in front of the next agricultural fence I see, to check that it’s straight.
The relationship between the three men in the gang, and between the gang and the big boss, captures the nature of working life very well. Respect is only shown when it’s felt necessary, and it is a show, not a truth. Their nightly pilgrimage to the local pub has shades of life in a small town where nothing much happens, so you take that nothing to a pub and let it continue under the influence of alcohol.
The relationship between the men and their work will be familiar to anyone who has had to do a job because they needed it not because they loved it. The desire to get something finished and out of the way is defeated by the desire to avoid having to do it at all costs. There comes a point where the men decide to abandon the unofficial job and head back to Scotland. But it turns out that escape isn’t as easy as they thought it might be. It becomes apparent that they are on a treadmill in a relentless nightmare of doing the same thing over and over again.
That makes it sound depressing. It’s not, though. It’s entertaining. Excruciating, but still entertaining.