Magnus Mills' debut novel, The Restraint of Beasts, is an understated, sinister, ironic tale, told with devastating comic precision and subtle observation. Written while Mills was working as a London bus driver, The Restraint of Beasts was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1998 (losing out, sadly, to Ian McEwan's Amsterdam).
Drawing on Mills' own experiences as an itinerant farm hand, the novel tells the story of two Scottish fencers, Tam and Richie, their ever-increasingly insane boss Donald, and their inexperienced and out-of-his-depth supervisor, the unnamed narrator. tf might not sound like much of an idea for a great novel, but Mills works some subtle magic with his characters, and seemingly without effort, draws the reader into their world for the brief duration of the story.
The dialogue and narrative are as darkly sparse as the surroundings the two workers and the narrator find themselves in while working on a contract in England. A simple piece of fence-building quickly gets out of control when the motley group come into contact, and start working for, the mysterious Hall Brothers - revered and feared in the local area, with more power than they can handle. Getting a fence built, as the narrator discovers, is no easy matter when your two workers behave like naive children, view work as something to do between smoking cigarettes, and can devote an entire day's thought to the evening trip to the local pub, and the excitement of meeting and pulling some local talent. Of course, Tam and Richie's plan to meet these lovely lasses never extends as far as actually talking to any of them, preferring to sit in a corner of the pub, having a god old moan about the beer, and how much they hate England. Getting a fence built correctly is even harder, when you're trying to please two or three masters at once. In fact, nothing is easy for the characters who inhabit this eerie world, including the very act of staying alive.
You can't really blame Tam and Richie for all the problems they inadvertently cause. Would you work that hard if your boss demonstrated an electric fence by electrocuting you with it, or withheld your weekly wages for a variety of unfathomable reasons? Or if what pay you did finally receive could barely cover your debts from the last week?
The Restraint of Beasts is brilliantly observed, from the smallest character details (the narrator grows increasingly irritated by Tam's habit of never, ever keeping his cigarettes and lighter in the same pocket), through the sudden, sometimes alarming, narrative turns, to the magical conclusion. It's a parable about power and control, about controlling your own destiny, or allowing others to control it for you, a theme Mills continued and expanded on in his later novel All Quiet on the Orient Express.