And we got back to work

The Restraint of Beasts
by Magnus Mills

I was sent this book by an old friend in a book swap and I can see why he chose it. It’s a comedy of a pretty niche sort and I think you’d have to know someone well to confidently recommend this to them. I was amused, so thanks Matt.

Mills takes a very simple story of everyday working class life, with all the drudgery and repetition that real life entails, and injects a few bizarre moments and a lot of black humour. Tam and Richie are Scottish fencers working under the supervision of the unnamed narrator, who must cajole and harass them into doing their job. Early in the novel, their employer sends them away from rural Scotland to equally rural west England to erect specialist fences for a grumpy farmer. The three main characters must share a small, dilapidated caravan and all they have to look forward to, aside from going home to Scotland when the job is finished, is their nightly visit to the local pub. When they come across local fencers the Hall Brothers, they think they have inadvertently trodden on toes and are in trouble for it, but the tale turns out to be much stranger than that.

Or does it? At the end I had quite a few unanswered questions. There are a number of things said that seem to be evasions or euphemisms that are not explained. Everything is sinister and suspect. A talk from the boss will be built up to as a climactic event, while the real big drama just happens with a shrug. The humour is understated and dark.

“Tam slowly advanced on the sheep, chisel raised like a dagger, getting within a few yards of the animal. Then suddenly he sprang forward.
‘Tam, no!’ I yelled.
The sheep instantly bolted, and Tam fell forward onto the ground…
‘What are you doing?’ I said.
‘I was just seeing if I could catch it, that’s all,’ he replied.
‘Why?’
‘In case we have to eat them.’
‘Why should we have to do that?’
‘Well, there’s fuck all else, is there?’ He looked desperate…
I made Tam promise not to kill, or practise killing, any sheep, and we got back to work.”

Tam and Richie are harmlessly useless. Work-shy and thoughtless to the point of stupidity, they spend all their money (and more, in the form of loans from the narrator) on beer and cigarettes. But they’re sweet in their reliance on one another and they’re happy enough with what they have. When persuaded to work they are good at their job and often it’s easy to sympathise with their reluctance to work – when it’s cold and raining and they just want to be finished and home for Christmas, for instance.

I’m not sure if a point is being made or if it’s just intended to be funny but there are a lot of conversations in the novel where a manager gives an impossible order or wilfully misunderstands an employee. The story is certainly firmly on the side of the main three characters – the working men. It doesn’t try to make big statements about society or the state of Britain but you could argue that this one small example does illustrate issues such as employment rights, debt and heavy drinking.

I did find the tone and subject disorienting at first. Mills worked as a fencer for years and has included a lot of detail about the job in his prose. And the tone is so very dry that it took me a while to pick up on the irony at work. But a chapter or so in it clicked for me and I found myself grinning through the rest of the book.

Published 1998 by Flamingo, an imprint of HarperCollins.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Whitbread First Novel Award. Winner of the McKitterick Prize in 1999.

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