Scottish imps reluctant to give a fence

The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills Flamingo pounds 9.99

Magnus Mills shot to fame this summer as the 45-year-old London bus driver who had sold his first novel to a publisher for a million pounds. "You wait all your life for a story about you, then three come along at once," as our sister newspaper put it. It later turned out that Mills had not been paid anything like that amount. Also, he works as a freelance writer for the Independent in his spare time. But still, the scribbling man on the Routemaster made for a lovely story. More to the point, Mills's first novel really is good.

The story is narrated by a nameless "I", a fence builder for a small company based somewhere in rural Scotland at some point in the 1970s. Right at the beginning, "I" is asked by Donald, the manager, to act as foreman over "Tam and Richie" on a forthcoming contract away: "They can't go to England on their own," as Donald puts it. "No, I suppose not," the narrator agrees. So off they go, to "Hereford and Worcester", to build a high-tensile steel fence. It's not so much a case of that being all you really need to know. It's that this is just about all we are ever told.

Tam and Richie never do anything you ask them to, and anything they touch gets more complicated than it should. Time gets wasted like it's free. They're imps of the perverse, the very soul and spirit of entropy; they're a whole minibus of Melville's Bartleby, squared. And yet they're also just young men with manual labouring jobs, who'd prefer not to be working, if it's all the same. The tension generated by their grudgingly passive resistance is extraordinary, and alarming. Simply reading becomes so uncomfortable, you want to scream until you burst.

As the tale goes on, things get even worse. The Hall Brothers, an English family of fencers, become involved. Little is said, but meaning rushes in to fill the great gaping cavities of implication. And interestingly, most of these meanings seem to have to do with things authoritarian and cruel. "As McCrindle had demonstrated with his phone call, the main concern of farmers was that their fences should be tight. Without that, the restraint of beasts was impossible."

The Hall brothers, it transpires, combine fencing with butchery and a sausage factory. They need an electric fence next time, because this time, they ended up losing "the school dinners". What do such things have to do with Tam and Richie?

The terseness of Mills's vocabulary - all nouns and verbs and joining words, with scarcely an adjective or adverb in 200 pages - produces an effect that is oblique and elliptical, yawning with sinister implication, in a manner which may be called "Kafkaesque". Except that instead of being like a studenty fringe play, the book is - like Kafka's - sourced scrupulously in quotidian reality at every stage of its construction. For Josef K, it all starts with a tedious surveying job in a mid-European peasant society. For Magnus M, it's the frustrations of manual labouring on Britain's

rural fringes, back in the olden days when men had long hair, cowboy boots and Black Sabbath tapes, and did not yet have to live in mortal terror of the dole.

The Scottish manual-labouring background, the absurdity, the interest in narrative torque, are clearly influenced by the school of James Kelman. But Mills is easier to read, and will be very much more straightforward to turn into a film. Towards the end of the book in particular, things tend slightly toward the glib and Film-on-Four screenplay. But this is nevertheless a forceful and original first novel, clever and funny and rewardingly strange.

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