The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills

I’m very fond of Magnus Mills’ work and when I found The Restraint of Beasts, his first novel, in a second hand bookshop, I was excited. I wondered what his first novel would be like and the title was promising.

The narrator is an English fencer working for a Scottish firm specialising in high tensile fencing. The novel opens with him being made foreman of a team of two almost inseparable Scots. Tam and Richie, both motivated by beer, survive on an endless system of subs and loans that dwindles their coming month’s wages. Unlike the narrator, they have no thoughts of extending their career beyond fencing. It doesn’t take long for the reader to extrapolate wider meanings for the term beasts.

The team is put together for a job in England, but before they can go they first have to fix a job they have supposedly just finished: Mr McCrindle’s fence has gone slack; not a very good start (something that gets said a lot). When they get to England they fall under the stronghold of the Hall Brothers who seem to be in charge of all the beasts from pigs to men. Before long they are working for the Hall Brothers on a seven foot high, high tensile electric fence with no gates. They wonder how you get anything out and I wonder how you get anything in. What is the fence for? Why are Hall Brothers workers all men fed only on Hall Brothers’ meat? What does it really mean to win the school dinners contract? Why is it so easy to bury the mistakes of a labourer (you’ll see what I mean)?

I enjoyed The Restraint of Beasts but in the end too much was left unexplored for my tastes. Whilst I understand that Mills is contemplating the nature of contract working, extrapolating out from one closed nit community to the workings of society in general, and that the worker doesn’t need to see the big picture to complete his job whose boundaries are as clear as the fences he’s building, I’m surprised there isn’t more conjecture on the narrator’s part. He likes to imagine he is a little higher up the food chain than Tam and Richie. Perhaps if the novel had been a little longer I would have had many more questions answered, but perhaps the book would then no longer have been the dance Mills intended. I wanted the novel to step further into the unspoken surreal edge that hovers around the story, crackling with the electric tension of the fence its main characters are busy building. I wanted more allegory and Mills went for more mystery.

The Restraint of Beasts is an intriguing book, but if I were to recommend a novel by Magnus Mills, I would recommend Three To See The King. That’s a book that does more of what I had hoped The Restraint of Beasts was working up to. Nevertheless, The Restraint of Beasts has a bleak humour that raises a rye smile about the economies of contract working and its implications for the restraints we place around ourselves.

Next week, I’m reading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, followed by J by Howard Jacobson.