A slight but engrossing, odd yet original black comedy, The Restraint of Beasts was shortlisted for both the Man Booker and Whitbread Prizes in 1998 – with novelist Thomas Pynchon describing it as ‘a demented, deadpan comic wonder.’
Tam and Richie are not your normal everyday kind of heroes. But then The Restraint of Beasts is not your normal everyday kind of novel – and certainly not one expected to feature on those shortlists.
And the twentysomething Tam and Richie are not heroes in the true sense of the word either. They’re pretty brainless, rarely speak, work-shy and hardly function away from each other. Yet their tale, this tale, is captivating.
Tam and Richie build fences for a living and are sent from Scotland to England to build high-tensile fences. Untrusted, an (unnamed) English colleague is appointed foreman. It is he who is the narrator of this deadpan black comedy as plans soon go awry – and not always the fault of the three men.
Before they even depart south in the decrepit works’ caravan, “Mr McCrindle’s fence has gone slack” and the trio must make good the poor workmanship of Tam and Richie prior to the opening of the novel. Problem is there’s a bit of an accident and the three must move on pretty sharpish.
The narrator is under no illusions about the difficulties ahead – the frequent cigarette breaks, the total lack of common sense or initiative, the laissez-fare approach to the task and care of tools. What’s more, he’s English….
Tam is permanently broke and caught in a vicious circle of clearing his debts with his pay packet only to borrow the money back that same night to be able to go to the pub. And, once the caravan is parked in England and the building of the fences commenced, that is all the three can do. Sitting quietly in the corner, glass in hand, speaking virtually to no-one, it is only the narrator who communicates to the world around them, whether it be to Donald (the boss back in Scotland), the landlord of the Queen’s Head or John Hall, the local competition.
Only problem is that accidents seem to follow them.
In his debut novel, Magnus Mills is a matter-of-fact commentator, preferring dialogue and action heavily tinged with irony to description. There are no details in terms of place or time – “England” in The Restraint of Beasts is a hill, a small market town, a pub at an intersection; similarly Scotland could be city, town or village.
The result is a focus on the unfolding tale, of Tam and Richie who are, initially, infuriating but who very slowly creep up as likeable characters. Along with the (supportive) foreman, they deal with the monotony and drudgery of fence building, come rain or shine. And the tin-pot caravan with next to no facilities is a long way from being home from home.
And it is this isolation, a long way from home, the machinations of Douglas back in Scotland and the somewhat sinister Hall Brothers that add a degree of menace and black humour to The Restraints of Beasts.
It is a thoroughly enjoyable debut (published in 1998, Mills has gone on to write several more novels and collections of short stories) that certainly grows on you. And at 215 pages, it never outstays its welcome.