This first novel moves between the present day and England a few years before the Second World War. Kevin, a collector of Nazi memorabilia and the sufferer of a very unpleasant medical condition, is sucked into a dangerous adventure, as he tries to unravel a seventy-year old mystery involving beetles, boxers, eugenics, and fascists.
Among the book's great characters, are an upper-class entomologist, a beautiful but violent Jewish boxer, and a spirited composer of atonal music who longs to escape from her family so she can go to a big city and learn to be witty, ironic, and brittle. Some of these people may not be particularly likeable (although one does warm to Seth 'Sinner' Roach, the boxer) but they are always interesting, and are treated with enough depth that, as well a being repelled, one also feels compassion when faced with their flaws, failings, and delusions.
'Boxer Beetle' displays a great depth of learning and the reader learns about invented languages, anti-Semitism in England and America before the war, and the battle of Cable Street among other things. The recreation of thirties England feels perfect.
In conclusion this book is funny, exciting, and clever; telling its story with confidence and verve, whilst never becoming pretentious or vacuous.
I desperately wanted to like this book. Its unusual enough and "clever" enough that I wanted to get that buzz of excitement at discovering something fresh and original. But in the end I found it hard work. Always clever. Always taking me down unusual pathways and telling me interesting things about subjects that I knew nothing about, but somehow missing out as true story-telling. Somehow missing a heart.
The good news is that the book is ambitious, inventive and well written. So I'm sure the author will be worth following in the future.
I bought this book mostly on the strength of its cover. I know that's supposed to be a rookie mistake, but then again, the graphics are charming, the book is well-made, with good-quality paper and so on; and it turns out it was a jolly good read anyway. The title, also, was a bit of a draw: it seemed to promise something Kafkaesque; though in that regard it didn't quite deliver. Instead of Kafka's labyrinths we are presented with a mixture of crime, obscenity, and scientific discourse. That is to say: with murder, lots of graphic hetero- and homosexual intercourse (though mostly homo-), invented languages, dissonance, Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism. It's a good recipe, especially if you're one of those readers who likes to come away from his (or her) reading feeling a bit grubby.
The book switches back and forth mostly between two time-lines, before World War II and the present. In the past we are given the story of the relationship between two very different individuals: Seth Roach and Sir Philip Erskine; one a talented Jewish boxer from London's East-end, the other an aristocrat interested in eugenics. The former, a law unto himself, and prone to violence; the latter, a bit of a fop. Both of them are gay, though Sir Erskine is in denial. In the present we follow a despicable boy, Kevin Broom, in his hunt (under duress) for a certain piece of Nazi memorabilia. What makes Kevin particularly distasteful is his infliction with a certain condition, trimethylaminuria, which basically means he sweats urine.
Of course, the two stories link together quite well; the plot is well constructed, and to the author's credit, what we have here is a bit of a page-turner. It's also very well written, and whilst I wouldn't say this book contains anything sublime, is perhaps lacking in emotion, clearly a lot of research has gone into its writing, and the end result is an eloquently written, if filthy, fairly humorous murder mystery. The description in the book almost reeks a little bit of Dickens. The names in any case -- Grublock, Gittins, Pearl, Broom, Roach, Siedelman, Erskine, Zroszak &c -- all seem to possess a sort of Dickensian potency.
It's a very good book; and considering it's Ned Beauman's first effort, I am certainly looking forward to his next.
You'd be hard pushed to find any even remotely pleasant characters in Boxer Beetle and few of the situations could in any way be described as agreeable - but there's nonetheless something compelling in its rather unique perspective and telling. In this narrative there is perhaps something of the discordant elements of the serial music experiments spoken of by one of the characters, Emily Erskine, who believes that "Dissonance is the sound of life in the twentieth century", and Boxer Beetle certainly tries it best to create dissonance between its rather unpleasant characters and the disagreeable situations they find themselves in. And, to a large extent, it succeeds.
There is however no formal experimentation with serialism itself in the writing, which switches conventionally between the present-day and related events in Britain in 1936 around the time of a rising interest with Fascism in Britain as well as in other more obvious parts of Europe. Kevin, a rather spineless (and smelly) collector of Nazi memorabilia in the present day, who doesn't ask himself too deeply about the dark undertones of his hobby, comes across a clue to a rather rare item presented to Adolf Hitler in the 1930s by a British entomologist, Philip Erskine, but a lethal assassin with an interest in the subject is also on the trail. Back in 1936, Erskine, although he has discovered an interesting new species of beetle on a trip to Poland, is interested in extending his controversial theories on eugenics and to assist in his experiments he has enlisted the services (in more ways than one) of a diminutive, aggressive, foul-mouthed, drunken, Jewish boxer from the East End of London, Seth Roach, known as Sinner.
There are elements of a thriller story in the present-day sections, as well as a related murder taking place in 1936, but these elements never really come to the fore or play a major part in the purpose of the book until close to the conclusion. In its place however you'll find a lot of nasty and stupid British fascists, some pretty distasteful views on the Jewish race and eugenics, some rather offensive language, scarcely a single likeable character, and some rather distasteful scenes of sex and sodomy.
That doesn't sound like much of a recommendation for Boxer Beetle, but there is something wilfully perverse about the book and the situations it recounts that makes it somewhat challenging and interesting. And while some might question the purpose and pace of the book, it is actually well-constructed, making links and connections between the characters, between their activities, their desires and the pre-war period that it is set in. Conflicting and distasteful they certainly are, but all these little connections do indeed create intriguing discordant resonances that might not add up to a great deal - I wouldn't like to overstate the case - but do perhaps capture a little of "the sound of life in the twentieth century".
on 25 May 2013
Fantastic. The imagination and intellect behind this book is frankly scary.
The skill with which Beauman handles terrifying subjects with humour while managing philosophical segues is awe-inspiring. His characters are melodramatic, in the true sense of the word - so enormously unbelievable , they have to be real. Sinner, the 1930s East End boxer with a taste for drink and men; Kevin, the memorabilia handler whose `condition' makes him stink of rotting fish; Erskine, the supercilious entomologist with a clinician's eye; not to mention the brilliantly outlandish supporting characters such as the Welsh assassin.
It's funny. It's intelligent. It wanders off into riffs about dissonance and riots, civic planning and the happenstance of Hitler. It has wholly believable sex scenes and a sinister bassline thrums as the author plays the unstated element of the reader's sensitivities.
Incredible. Genre-perverse and actually just plain perverse debut novel.
I loved it.
I'll be watching Ned Beauman.
on 13 June 2015
An overly ambitious and self-conscious first novel. The humor is clumsy, the dialogue wooden, the characters lacking in empathy and the varying threads of the novel just don't hang together very well. A shame, as it is obviously well-researched and the plot has originality. These qualities alone though, are not enough to salvage it.
on 13 February 2014
A rather knowing style but interesting subject matter (boxer, beetle) and only one jarring grammatical usage. The voice sometimes wavers as it switches between eras, but the plot strands tie together well. Despite the violent background to the novel, there seems to be an upbeat note to coping with all the adversity..
on 14 February 2011
I admire Ned Beauman's ambition with Boxer Beetle. His frame of reference owes a lot to Michael Chabon, Thomas Pynchon et al - but Boxer Beetle, for all its promise, reads like Michael Chabon fan-fiction. Another reviewer suggests it's like a creative writing University project, and I'm inclined to agree - it wears its obviously 'kooky' research heavily and feels just a little bit... contrived.
Maybe once Mr Beauman gets free of his influences he might write something truly original - there's enough here to make you want to wait and find out, but not quite enough to get properly excited about.
Will be looking out but not holding my breath!
on 24 April 2013
A murder-mystery that moves from the 1930s to the present day, taking in East End Jews, boxing, beetles, a sinister Welsh hitman, an upper class family, Nazi memorabilia, and even a letter from the Fuhrer himself. Protagonist Kevin, sufferer of a rare medical condition who conducts most of his social life on-line, is compelled literally at gun-point to investigate what really happened to a thuggish East End Jewish boxer in the 1930s.
A bizarre mix of characters populate this hilarious and witty first novel, including Fascists, both dedicated and half-hearted, entomologists, ruthless property-developers and on-line memorabilia collectors. I can see that this won't be for everyone, but I found it hilarious and very well-written.
on 12 September 2010
I found this a gratuitous novel, which although very readable, seemed a half hearted Da Vinci Code styled book with faint references to London's East End in an attempt to make it current. I don't want to be unduly harsh but I was thoroughly disappointed by the lack of historical references and excessive needless descriptions of everyday items.
The book as a whole seemed to be a platform to demonstrate knowledge of Nietzsche and grassroots fascism of 1930 Britain. I can see this author improving, and on the whole not a bad first book, but perhaps more emphasis on character development rather than trying to feed the story loosely into the history of Spitalfields market.