Book Review - Beasts of England

Paris-based writer and translator Adam Biles’s 2016 debut, Feeding Time, was a darkly comic tale about the rebellious residents of an old people’s home. His second novel is a homage (and sequel) to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Described as “a state-of-the-farmyard novel”, Biles has created a political fable for our post-Brexit times. Manor Farm, now a petting zoo in southern England, is undone by narcissistic leaders and populist politics. The pigs, divided into two parties – the Animalists (“nimble, generous … Modern”) and the Jonesists (“old-fashioned, nostalgic … human-lovers”), jostle for leadership of an increasingly dysfunctional council.

The farmyard community is beset by factions, and sacred mottos are perverted for nefarious ends – “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others” takes on a whole new meaning when recalling the behaviour of certain politicians during the pandemic. Manor Farm residents discover that the bull terriers pre-sold the electricity generated by their windmill. When the windmill stops working they are left with a catastrophic debt to repay, while the store of grain left for a rainy day is empty. A murmuration of starlings is infected by robotic birds that spread vicious rumours among the farm’s inhabitants.

There’s initially fun to be had in Biles’s presentation of political scandals and by comparing his devious porkers with real-life counterparts — Jumbo, for example, rises swiftly through the ranks to become first pig, has a tendency to dissemble, possesses a ferocious sexual appetite and wears a hairpiece. But the farm becomes increasingly authoritarian. A terrible disease, Wufflu, caused by contaminated bone meal (provided by the pigs and resold as fodder), ravages the alpacas and sheep. Certain species are deemed “undesirable”, even those who have lived there for generations, and a moat is dug around the farm to keep out any strays, who are consigned to seek shelter in the quarry. Those who ask too many questions or try to uncover the truth disappear or are made an example of as a warning to others.

Like Orwell, Biles satirises those who fail to deliver what they promise and warns against the abuse of power and creeping totalitarianism. He paints a stark portrait of a rural community isolated and bankrupted by corruption. The plight of ordinary animals struggling to survive while their self-appointed ruling class grow fat off their toil remains a deeply affecting allegory and Beasts of England is a timely and worthy successor to Orwell’s classic.

Originally published by The Observer