The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills isn’t a book with instant appeal. On the surface, it appears to be about two Scottish fence builders and their foreman, but it’s so much more. The world this book creates is familiar and disarming, luring the reader into a false sense of security. Mill’s writing feels true to life, but there’s also a deadpan uncanny quality to this novel. As the story progresses, it unnoticeable spirals to an unnerving conclusion. Particularly with the introduction of the Hall Brothers who are butchers and meat producers by trade, but also side hustle as fence builders. They’re overbearing and obsessive, particularly about having the school meals, whatever that actually means. They also keep referring to their animals as beasts, which makes you wonder what their sausages are really made from.
The book begins with our narrator being put in charge of Tam and Richie. The first interaction with the boss Donald is irksome and perfectly detailed. I’ve had a few similarity harrowing managers, which adds to the satire. Donald talks, the narrator listens, it isn’t a conversation, it’s an order. There’s is no place for opinion in the world Mills has created. The narrator expresses nothing and the understanding of his powerlessness and his lack of a say is tangible. Beautifully done.
Having been put in charge, we are introduced to Tam and Ritchie who are wonderfully unfathomable. Brooding, fizzy pop sharing, beer drinking, smoking, guitar playing, anti-social Scottish fencers. They’re thoughtless creatures of habit. We have all likely met someone like them at some point, yet understanding them escapes both the reader and the narrator. The book doesn’t examine their emotions or thoughts. This causes the reader to consider their motivations and draw speculative conclusions.
They seem unbothered by the seeming meaninglessness of their lives, any day could be the same, underpinned by ritualistic behaviours and meaningless interactions. They’re also in many ways child like, consequences don’t occur to them, they waste time and then lament not setting off to the pub soon enough. They don’t seem to have any parameters for actions and consequences. The morale disconnect is present throughout the story, strange things are punishable, whilst other horrific actions are considered completely fine.The story questions whether there’s a point to following the accepted rules, when you can be persecuted regardless.
This book has a lot of fantastic moments. I loved Donald questioning Tam and Ritchie over a slack fence. Mills gives it the styling of a Cold War interrogation with a naked light bulb and chairs which are too small for adults.
Overall this book is a stunning portrayal of work, drink, sleep, repeat. It examines our working lives, the drudgery and lack of fulfilment which is chronic. I love the distorted view this novel creates and the shock of the dark humour when it rears up from monotony. It’s superbly crafted and well worth a read if you like contemporary fiction to keep you up at night.
I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read it, did you love it, or should it be buried with the fence posts?
Let me know what you think in the comments!