The Restraint of Beasts
Here is the captivating tale of three men who work for a company specializing in high-tension fences, the kind that keep beasts in and humans out—or maybe the other way around. Tam and Richie are good Scots lads at heart (taciturn and suspicious of authority) who have turned loafing and pub-crawling into an art form. They try the patience of their foreman, the narrator of the novel, who has the misfortune of being British. Carefully laid plans go haywire from the start. The fence they had built for Mr. McCrindle has gone slack, and while he watches them attempt to set things right, things go horribly, terribly wrong. Covering their tracks as best they can, the hapless trio head south from Scotland to do a job in England. But sometimes good fences make disastrous neighbors.
Good fences may make good neighbors, but in Magnus Mills’s first novel, bad fences make for high tension indeed. An eerie noir fable told in a grim, deadpan voice, The Restraint of Beasts begins as an unnamed English fence builder finds himself promoted to foreman over Tam and Richie, two undermotivated Scots laborers. They’ve just been sent out to fix a high-tension fence when events go horribly awry—and that’s just the beginning. For the rest of the novel, as his charges drink, smoke, loaf, and pound the occasional post, things go wrong over and over again. In a sense, that’s all you can truly rely on in Mills’s fictional world. It is not giving away too much to say that with these particular fencers on the job, you’d best watch your back. And your front, for that matter. And maybe keep a firm eye on the skies, just in case.
The team travels south to England, where they live out of a damp, cold caravan in the town of Upper Bowland. They’re soon at loggerheads with the sinister Hall brothers, whose business enterprises seem to combine fencing, butchering, sausage-making, and a fierce attachment to school meals. “We committed no end of good deeds!” cries John Hall. “Yet still we lost the school dinners! Always the authorities laying down some new requirement, one thing after another! This time is seems we must provide more living space. Very well! If that’s the way they want it, we’ll go on building fences for ever if necessary! We’ll build pens and compounds and enclosures! And we’ll make sure we never lose them again!”
In between placing Kafkaesque obstacles in his narrator’s path, Mills seeds his debut with small, darkly comic touches: Tam’s father, whom we last see erecting a stockade round his house “to stop you from coming home any more”; the sound of Richie’s Black Sabbath tapes “slowly being stretched in an under-powered cassette player”; the caravan’s encroaching squalor; An Early Bath for Thompson, the book that Richie tries without success to read. No doubt about it, The Restraint of Beasts is a strange novel that only grows stranger as it progresses; with luck, it augurs more brilliant, odd work from Mills. —Mary Park