I was attracted to this book by the title initially, as is so often the case. Reading the blurb convinced me to buy it, from a second-hand shop in Canterbury. In this part of the country – as it is anywhere outside of London, to a greater or lesser extent – one is more aware of the things that make up the central themes of this book; working men’s culture, pub life and the world of manual work. I bought it, and read it on my lunch breaks, and favourably compared the lives explored here with office drudgery. The idea of knocking in fence posts in the pouring rain all day sometimes seems more appealing than staring at a computer all day. But that’s not really the point.
The Restraint of Beasts is an evocative title which riffs obviously on two themes simultaneously present in this novel; fencing in farmland, and the restraint of men’s impulses and urges by the drudgery of their work. When interpreted as the latter, there is also a hint of something more elemental; that these Scottish fencers would, if circumstances were different, be running wild on the fens and causing all kinds of bestial mayhem rather than working themselves to the bone for money to spend on beer and the oblivion it brings.
There is a lot of focus on the circular nature of this life: work – money – beer. It’s futility is often admitted, but never really confronted by any of the characters. It’s a way of life that places all importance on the present moment and gives no thought to the future. It’s hedonism, of an everyday sort that will be familiar to everyone, and much more so in the present moment, where economic crisis and being pushed into underpaid or unskilled work will drive even the best of us to question the benefits of forward-planning, and seek distraction as an alternative.
Other than the above, I don’t have a lot to say about this book. It’s a nicely written, well observed portrait of manual labour and the lives it constructs. It has an undercurrent of mystery and black farce that I felt it could have done without, as it remains an unresolved and unlikely subplot. On the whole though, it’s funny and insightful and sometimes unsettling in its ultimately straightforward account of three men putting up fences, and the people they encounter along the way.
The cover of my copy (Flamingo/Harper Collins 1999) features shiny ‘pint glass rings’ as if the book is the surface of a pub table, covered in sticky beer marks. A nice touch, I thought.