Magnus Mills has been hovering around the edges of my reading consciousness for some time, including having read two of his novels – The Maintenance of Headway (good, but didn’t quite work for me) and All Quiet on the Orient Express (much better) – but I’ve always felt that I could really love a Mills novel, given the right novel and the right timing. Well, about three years ago my then-housemate Mel gave me The Restraint of Beasts (1998) – where better to re-start with Mills than with his first novel? (N.B. Mel, now that I’ve finally read the book you got me for my birthday in 2010, will you buy me books again?)
Our narrator is anonymous (which I confess I hadn’t noticed until I read the Wikipedia page for the novel) and has just become the foreman of a Scottish fencing company, led by the domineering Donald and contentedly useless Robert. He is a foreman of a small team – Gang no.3 – which consists of just three people, including himself. The others are Tam and Rich – inseparable but taciturn, fairly lazy, and undemonstrative. Having been introduced to his team (and discovering that he is replacing Tam in the foreman position), the narrator and his colleagues are sent off to fix the fence of a local farmer, which has been erected poorly.
If this is all sounding rather dull, then I should let you know – the activities of the heroes (or lack thereof) are determinedly boring. They put up fences. They travel to England to do so, and vary the monotony of hammering in posts only with trips to the local pubs, which provide almost no incident, and are generally almost empty.
One of the things studying English for so long has enabled me to do, I hope, is identify how a writer creates certain effects or atmosphere. I hope Stuck-in-a-Book generally shows that sort of insight into a novel, or at least tries to. But with Mills and The Restraint of Beasts (which is my favourite of the three I’ve read so far), I am almost entirely unable to say why it works. Here is a sample paragraph for you…
Their pick-up truck was parked at the other side of the yard. They’d been sitting in the cab earlier when I went past on my way to Donald’s office. Now, however, there was no sign of them. I walked over and glanced at the jumble of tools and equipment lying in the back of the vehicle. Everything looked as though it had been thrown in there in a great hurry. Clearly it would all need sorting out before we could do anything, so I got in the truck and reversed round to the store room. Then I sat and waited for them to appear. Looking around the inside of the cab I noticed the words ‘Tam’ and ‘Rich’ scratched on the dashboard. A plastic lunch box and a bottle of Irn-Bru lay on the shelf.
And, believe me, things get technical. I’ve learnt more about putting up fences than I’d ever imagined I’d know. (Fyi, they’re usually being built to pen in animals – the restraint of beasts, y’see. Excellent title.) Mills worked as a fencer himself for some years, so you could be forgiven for thinking this was turning into an odd autobiography.
But, in amongst this, occasionally bizarre or momentous things DO happen, and they are treated with as casually and matter-of-factly as the tedium of standing in the rain with a fence hammer. That is one of the reasons I loved this novel – I love surreal and black humour, but I hate anything disgusting, unduly frightening, macabre, or viciously unkind (so psychological thrillers almost always off the menu.) Mills lets the moments of darkness become instantly surreal simply by giving us a narrator who does not see the difference between life-changing, terrible incidents and the everyday minutiae of the construction industry. (Note that I’m deliberately avoiding telling you what these dark moments are, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise!)
Somehow, throughout plain and ‘deceptively simple’ (sorry, had to be done) prose, Mills expertly implies growing menace and claustrophobia. The humour is still there – never laugh-out-loud funny, but always a dry, bleak humour – but the darkness seems to be spreading. And from the opening pages, the reader is pulled from page to page, without almost nothing happening… how? I don’t know what is in the writing that makes it work so well, as tautly engaging as a detective novel. It’s obvious that All Quiet on the Orient Express was written after The Restraint of Beasts, because it follows a similar premise and style, but with a firmer structure. And yet I refer The Restraint of Beasts, perhaps because it is more daring in its lack of structure.
And what is it all about? I haven’t the foggiest. The ending (which, again, I shan’t spoil) isn’t conclusive at all, but dumps a whole load of clues about the meaning of the novel. I wondered whether it might be a metaphor for fascism, or perhaps communism, or… well, I don’t know. It doesn’t much matter, and I’d have been rather cross if it turned out to be a heavy-handed metaphor for anything (only George Orwell can get away with that), so I’m happy to let it be simply an excellent, bewildering, disturbing placid novel. If you’ve yet to try Mills, start here.
It’s been a while since I did a ‘Others who got Stuck into…’ section, because I have a terrible memory, so…
Others who got Stuck into The Restraint of Beasts…
“He is able to turn the ordinary into something sinister in a way that defies description, so that you’re never quite sure whether a terrible event is going to happen or whether the author is just playing with your sense of the dramatic.” – Kim, Reading Matters
“There are a number of things said that seem to be evasions or euphemisms that are not explained. Everything is sinister and suspect.” – Kate, Nose in a Book
“It has an undercurrent of mystery and black farce that I felt it could have done without, as it remains an unresolved and unlikely subplot.” – Read More Fiction