By Andrew Hook

Steve Redwood Travels with Moon Beaver

Moon Beaver is the story of a wild, supremely self-confident girl who takes a young man away from his job and fiancée on trips to Moscow and Bangkok, not in order to sleep with him--she never does--but in order to impart her 'message' to him. Although the message itself is delusional--the way to immortality is to halt time by never stopping moving--and indeed is so limited that her (and the writer's) attempt to 'parcel it out' leads occasionally to something very like repetition, its corollary--the vital importance of resisting conformity, of 'living' every moment to the full--is what gives the novel its verve and impact. We may be slightly unconvinced at the final 'revelation'--as to who Moon is really working for--but during the actual reading the sense of mystery and breathless disorientation is wonderfully maintained.

Moon has a catalytic influence on all those who come near her, and the success of the book must depend in part on whether we find this credible. I did. I was made to feel the enormous frustrating attraction of that 'short, manic-faced, astral kitten' with her 'pumpkin-pie backside'. She is provocative, highly intelligent and articulate, unpredictable, infuriatingly vain and sure of herself, yet vulnerable too. Although in the end, this 'cult of one', with a bemused Benny as 'cult-follower', is seen to be self-deluded and selfish, this does not detract from the strength of the portrayal. She is a remarkable character, an updated hippy Becky Sharp.

Moon is set up as the antithesis of the Company, which is inexorably taking over a 'sleepy backwater' English city. The Company is not necessarily evil in intention (though the American version doesn't baulk at arson to achieve its purposes): indeed, it 'worked hard to make sure that happiness was sewn up'. But what it does do is destroy individuality, free choice, and finally free emotions. Even the elevators take people directly to their respective floors, preventing normal interaction between the employees. Hook is attacking (enforced) conformity more than the more dramatic pernicious effects of big business in poorer countries.

Caught between these two forces of conformity and individualism are the rest of the characters. Benny is an attractive co-protagonist, a sincere, baffled, non-macho male willing to go along for the ride, partly because he has already sensed the need to escape the Company. (An unusual feature of the novel is that the two main characters interacting at the core are not the romantic pair.) Louise, his fiancée, if not as exciting as Moon, is solidly and convincingly drawn. Structurally she serves as a kind of anchor while Benny is travelling the world.

The other Moonstruck character is Lou, the mid-American chicken farmer, who has already gone through the Moon experience, and now regrets not having gone along with her on her wild ride. The scenes with Lou are very well written, the most moving in the book, though I confess I had a problem believing that this kind of stolid, chicken-obsessed person would ever have attracted a person like Moon. However, this is not too important, as it is the memory and example of Moon which give Lou hope and strength when his world is destroyed.

In his attempt to hammer home the theme of the necessity of escaping from any and all ruts, Hook has maybe overdone it by including a rather disconnected Alice-Christian strand, a couple who have descended from high university ideals to pornography. The only 'excuse' for Alice to be in the book is that she was Benny's ex. But the author smilingly disarms us: 'Our third couple, who we've all agreed are just minor players...'

Another 'bit' player is far more carefully integrated into the whole. Carl of the one-track mind, Benny's colleague and squash partner, is there as a contrast to Benny, and also represents what the Company will turn people into, but is 'saved' by his feeling of friendship. (Friendship and trust are prime movers in this book: the feel of the novel is warm, positive, life-affirming.)

The writing is excellent. It draws you in from the beginning, and holds your attention even when not much is actually happening plotwise. There are superb images and symbols, such as the rescue of Lou's giant egg, but not of the glass used by Moon: in the fire, 'the lipstick trace had disappeared, melted away like pink snow in a pale landscape'. An unusual--and I think successful--feature of the novel are the authorial asides and comments on modern life--and on the novel itself. Not just the 'big' questions, but even the sounds of bells or the gender of squash balls! My own favourite is: 'But no telephone began to ring, as it might have done in a lesser novel'. The trips made by Moon and Benny--especially in Thailand--give a wonderful feel for the country. My mouth watered on seeing once again those magical words 'durian' and 'rambutan'!

(An aside of my own: I haven't counted them all, but I suspect this novel holds the record for the number of showers and baths taken (and not always simply for cleansing purposes) by its various characters!)

In short, if you're thinking of escaping the Company yourself and zooming off to foreign climes, you could do much much worse than take this highly thoughtful and entertaining--and daringly unusual--novel along with you. Although the themes are serious, the treatment is light, frequently very humorous, and more immediately accessible than the writer's equally excellent but more ambiguous and 'difficult' shorter fiction.

Moon Beaver by Andrew Hook. ENC Press tpb, 236pp, £9.50 or US $19(ex p&p).

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Steve Redwood is the author of the British Fantasy Society-nominated (but not Vatican-approved) novel Fisher of Devils, and the story collection The Heisenberg Mutation, and is a contributor to the Hugo and World Fantasy Award runner-up Thackery T Lambshead Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases, as well as to the upcoming Mammoth Book of New Comic Fantasy, and Darkness Rising anthology.

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