Allegory has an image problem. In the eight decades since Animal Farm reflected the tragedy of the Soviet Union, political power has evolved to such a state as defies, arguably, the form’s ability to fix it within its frame. The regimes of the post-truth era are in form too amorphous, in character too erratic, and in orientation too outlandish to allow for the one-to-one correspondences which the construction of an allegorical mirror world demands. Once a useful tool in dissecting the lies of tyrants, it feels a blunt instrument against today’s leaders, who draw on powers of misinformation and dissimulation undreamt of by the prosaic pigs of the politburo.
“What the novel gains in psychological insight it loses in narrative focus and moral purpose.”
In Beasts of England, this untethered updating of Orwell’s classic fable, Adam Biles shows himself sensitive to these changes of circumstance. Manor Farm has abandoned its old physical economy in favour of a fantasy; having diversified its stock with such exotic imports as alpacas and geckos, it has managed to rebrand itself as a popular petting zoo. The animals lead lives of unprecedented leisure, worry little about the diminution of concrete wealth, and for energy supply put their faith in the interminable construction of a much-vaunted dynamo. When it is revealed that the dynamo may not mean their saving, there follows a series of catastrophes commensurate with Brexit, Covid, and climate collapse…
Biles’ own innovation is to employ a broader canvas than his predecessor. The post-agricultural idyll is brought into relief against the background of a renascent natural world from which the domestic animals are long since liberated — or so they have deluded themselves. In the murmurations of starlings some read the sign of a new dawn, while for others they can only augur doom; where the reappearance of foxes strikes fear in some, others are lured into complacency by the foxes’ disarmingly placid mien. It is hardly surprising that there should be such contrasting responses: the credo by which the farm lives, ‘All animals are more equal than others’, is a meaningless distortion of a distortion, whose historical origin the animals cautiously leave unexamined the better to project their own individual interpretations onto it. It is perhaps the resulting lack of a consensus on the nature of their collective reality which paralyses the animals’ instincts to resist trouble when it arrives.
This added emphasis on the animals’ interior lives means that Beasts of England ultimately escapes the enclosure of allegory, and enters more open, uncertain ground. But in abandoning the omniscient voice along with the brevity of its model, what the novel gains in psychological insight it loses in narrative focus and moral purpose, a loss which not even a return to first principles in the final chapter can recover. Throughout, Biles displays his talents as a direct and vivid stylist (such as when he describes how the scrap machinery of the farmyard ‘groped skyward like the remains of a metallic forest’), so it seems a shame that he has chosen so wayward a vehicle as this to convey it.
Beasts of England provides ample fodder for the contemplation of our moment, but will ultimately leave you craving more substantial fare.
Words: Diarmuid McGreal