Blair's Reviews > Boxer, Beetle

Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman
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's review
Jun 17, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: past-and-present, favourites, 2010-release, first-novels, library-books
Read in June, 2011

One of the great things about going to the library is that sometimes, completely by chance, you spot books you've previously read or heard about, added to a mental wishlist and then completely forgotten. This is exactly what happened with Boxer, Beetle. It caught my eye and I immediately recalled having heard something good about it on TV (I think on The Culture Show or something), and the rapturous reviews quoted all over the jacket helped me to decide to borrow it. But I probably wouldn't have remembered it, otherwise. I'm so grateful for this bit of serendipity, because the book is brilliant.

The bulk of the story takes place in the mid-1930s, centering on two very different characters: Seth 'Sinner' Roach, a tough and very violent gay Jewish boxer, and Philip Erskine, a timid student of both eugenics and fascism who is in denial about his own homosexuality. Erskine becomes obsessed with Sinner, (barely) concealing his lust by claiming he needs to examine him as part of a experiment in genetics, and Sinner is forced to accept Erskine's offer to 'buy' him after his boxing career stalls and he succumbs to alcoholism. Meanwhile, Erskine is also attempting to breed an invincible species of eyeless beetle with markings that resemble a swastika, which he names after his hero - Hitler. This dominant strand of the plot is combined with a sprinkling of chapters set in the present day, in which Kevin 'Fishy' Broom (so nicknamed because of an unfortunate medical condition, trimethylaminuria), a collector and dealer in Nazia memorabilia, comes across a letter from Hitler to Erskine. Finding himself pursued by a Welsh assassin, he becomes drawn into the mystery of Erskine's research and what became of Sinner - who, as far as history is concerned, seems to have vanished after a disastrous conference of fascists at a country house in 1936, at which a scandalous murder took place.

The front and back covers are full of newspaper hyperbole - 'dazzling', 'terrific', 'gripping', 'hilarious', 'exhilarating'. All of these are accurate. The plot, while appealingly original in itself, doesn't really sum up all that's good about the novel, and I'm not sure I'm up to the task either; you simply need to read this book and you're just going to have to take my word for it. It's completely compelling, very exciting and vastly intelligent, reminding me of a Jonathan Coe book in several ways - the well-researched historical detail which will have you constantly checking Wikipedia to find out if this or that is real or the author's invention, the labyrinthine conversations, and the high quota of coincidences, some unacknowledged. It's also incredibly funny. I can't remember the last time I laughed out loud this much while reading. The characters are fantastic - repulsive but endearing Kevin, potentially brilliant but self-destructive Sinner, and Erskine, who you should hate but can't help feeling a weird sympathy for, with his bumbling, awkward manner and complete lack of self-knowledge. On top of this it has wonderful character names, excellent sex scenes (such a rare thing) and so much atmosphere - there's a brief interlude set in New York, and even though it's just one short chapter, the sense of time and place is note-perfect.

If I had to make a criticism here, it would be that some sequences of events unfold too quickly and conveniently to be realistic. But who cares, when it's such tremendous fun to read? The final thing to note about this book is that Ned Beauman is YOUNGER THAN ME. I should hate him for making me feel like an unaccomplished foolish failure, but just I loved the book too much.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Carey Combe Fab review, I have this on my bookshelves and now can't wait to read it!

message 2: by Joanie (new)

Joanie Wow, this sounds stimulating. Putting it on my 'to-read' list! Doesn't sound like anything I've read before.

Mmars Finished it. You liked it more than I did, but Beauman is definitely a talented writer & thanks for your review and advice which convinced me to read it.

message 4: by James (new)

James Wonderful review. I must read this book now.

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