This is the type of book that will make you look at high tensile agricultural fencing in an entirely new way. I’m not joking. And it might make you think twice about refusing a third helping of sausages at breakfast, too.
A highly unusual tale written in a highly unusual style, The Restraint of Beasts (the title refers to what a fence does) is a black comedy like no other.
It tells the story of two itinerant Scots fencers, the pub-obsessed, cash-strapped Tam and Richie, who are dispatched to England to build a fence. With them goes the narrator, their foreman, who dreads spending the next six weeks or so living on a farm in a squalid caravan with his often silent and moody charges.
Here the trio spend their days bashing in fence posts and threading high-tensile wire between them, usually in dismal weather conditions. Their evenings are spent wolfing down cold baked beans straight from the can and then spending what little money they have in the nearest pub. It’s all very dull, mediocre and treadmill like.
This is echoed in Magnus Mills‘ deliciously anorexic prose that borders on being completely turgid. There are pages and pages where nothing very much seems to happen. And then — POW! — something incredibly hilarious occurs that makes all the boredom preceding it worthwhile.
Mills, who famously got a huge advance to write this book, knows how to deliver a good punch line — all the while keeping a straight face. He is a master at conveying moods and atmospheres in just a few words. His dialogue is particularly good, allowing his characters to move the story along through speech, more than action.
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.
I loved this book, but I have to say I much preferred Mills’ later efforts — Three to See the King and All Quiet on the Orient Express. Still, The Restraint of Beasts impressed the critics upon publication — it was shortlisted for the 1998 Booker Prize and the 1998 Whitbread Award.