When the histories of middle-class life in the earliest decades of the 21st century come to be written they will, perhaps with mild disapproval, explain that the era’s prevailing tone was one of ceaseless, half-hysterical novelty, of constant, manufactured outrage, of roving, voracious boredom. Paul Kingsnorth’s new novel, Beast, might provide some useful supporting evidence, dealing as it does with an individual’s confused desire to escape modernity, its ‘screen-dumb people pacing out the slow suicide of the West’, in order to seek sanctuary and truth in an earlier form of life, far from the urban, ‘where the old spirits still mutter in the hedges and the stone rows’.
The book is the second in a projected trilogy. The first, the prize-winning The Wake, tells the story of a survivor of the Norman Conquest and is written in a kind of mock Old English; the film rights have been optioned by Mark Rylance. Beast brings the story into the present day; the third book, yet to be written, is set to propel the narrative, with a David Mitchell-esque leap, into the far future.
So bald a summation does little justice to this strange, beguiling project. Kingsnorth is an occasional poet (a book of verse, Kidland, was published in 2011) and his fictive prose often tacks far closer to the lyrical than to narrative. Such story as exists emerges obliquely and in increments. The