The Perfect Golden Circle by Benjamin Myers
I have known that I want to read Benjamin Myers for a while now. I have bought two of his earlier novels on the strength of their descriptions and some rave reviews from readers that I trust. The Gallows Pole (2017) and The Offing (2019) will have to wait a little longer, but not that long because this latest book was an excellent read.
An easy-going tale, a book of beauty with plenty going on under the surface.
The action takes place in 1989, and I think it helps that I remember those days of increasingly intricate crop circles that blossomed in the rich cornfields of southern England. The wild theories about visitors from distant planets and how humans could never make anything so complex.
Many circles appeared close to a place in England called Avebury, a vast stone circle enclosed by a deep ditch and bank. It was a place I often visited in my twenties for no better reason than I loved the landscape, rolling downs and ancient trackways that made fine day-long walks.
‘The Perfect Golden Circle’ is a wonderful portrayal of male friendship and the secret nocturnal manufacture of numerous crop circles. Two friends are brought together by the camaraderie of designing and then executing increasingly intricate designs. This is their third season, they have a code of secrecy that means they are yet to be caught and so theories abound as to who, or what, is responsible for the circles.
Calvert is a Falklands War veteran, scarred both inside and out, he is almost never seen without sunglasses, even at night. He brings military precision to the making of the circles, plans then precisely and finds the ideal locations in the landscape. He seems to have no other life beyond these summer nights and lives in the smallest of houses with few comforts or possessions. The other character is Redbone, who lives a life of chaos, often in his VW van, depending on whether he has a girlfriend at the time or not. He plays in a band, enjoys the occasional magic mushroom, and must contend with Calvert’s night-time vegetarian cooking experiments.
The only other character in the novel is the landscape of southern England. It has an understated but vital role which Myers lovingly describes.
“There are fields so vast and remote that you can wander to their very centre and scream and bellow and laugh and dance, and much more besides, and no one but the mice and the crows will hear you.
There are fields that are near to nowhere, fields bigger than villages. Fields that feed hundreds of people and accommodate thousands of co-existing creatures and species, from the tiniest tick to the largest deer.”
The book spends plenty of time on dwelling on small but vital details. Calvert’s diminutive abode is described in great detail:
“Bluebell Cottage is a squat stone box of a building that has crouched near the centre of the village since it was built at the dawn of the eighteenth century. A doorway so small that even the shorter people of the early Georgian era would have stooped to get through leads straight from the street into a room that is only an inch or two over eight square feet, yet into which Calvert has miraculously managed to fit an L-shaped leather sofa whose covering is scored with thousands of scratch marks from his overzealous cat, Doorstep, as well as a drop-leaf table and a unit that houses his television and substantial videotape collection. A thick rag rug covers almost all of the uneven flagstone floor and a small inglenook fireplace holds within it the centrepiece of the room and Calvert’s one other concession to modernity: a recently installed brand-new wood-burning stove. Around it, the stone of the fireplace is stained by over three centuries of soot and smoke, but Calvert keeps the green enamel of the wood burner buffed and shiny with regular cleaning.”
It is an interesting description, with its long rambling sentences that smother us in detail. As though the impenetrable nature of the man himself will tells us nothing, forcing us to garner as many clues as we can about him from such descriptions.
The easy-going relationship between Calvert and Redbone is a strange one. They appear unlikely companions, and are, if anything, opposites. But they share a common nocturnal passion, trampling down the corn in the quest for ever more extravagant patterns and designs. It is Redbone who does the designing, pushing himself to greater and greater extremes, to make designs that appear almost impossible to create and extending the hours of work required from dusk until dawn in the short summer nights.
The success of the book revolves around the unfolding relationship between the two men, as little by little their characters and motivations emerge.
“Despite his past profession, Calvert meanwhile is not quite the warrior who should be given a wide pavement birth by passing strangers, as some might initially assume from his outward appearance. His anxieties are legion. Deep waters run within him and strange creatures dwell down there in the darkness. Frequent are the days when he feels anxiety stretched tight over everything like clingfilm, and so for reasons as different as black and white or wrong and right, both men choose to exist mainly in the present moment.”
Calvert is damaged by war, by what he witnessed and what almost took his life. Redbone is more of a free spirit, unfettered by possessions and obligations, but with a richly entangled love life outside of the time he spends with Calvert. For Calvert, there is no-one else. For him the undertones of depression and mania run deep. The planning of his circle making with military precision is the thing he lives for.
Let me leave you with this little exchange between the two men as they prepare to execute the most complex circle of all, the Honeycomb Double Helix:
“‘It’s inside me now. It’s like a tapeworm squirming through my innards. Even in sleep it’s there. And I do sometimes wonder.’
‘Whether it is worth it. The toll it takes on the rest of my life.’
Calvert removes his sunglasses and looks at Redbone. He has worn the shades for so long that the shape of them is visible in the lighter skin that the sun has not tanned behind them, leaving a racoon-like eye mask and a deep imprint that sits on the bridge of his nose too. But it is the eyes themselves that Redbone really notices. They are penetratingly blue. Surprisingly so. And they seem to be ever-changing, from teal to turquoise, cerulean to sapphire to cobalt. Redbone thinks that with those eyes his friend could do absolutely anything he wants in life. But also, with eyes that striking, it’s little wonder he keeps them covered, for they could draw unwanted attention too. And then it occurs to him that perhaps Calvert is doing exactly what he wants in life, and in a way maybe he himself is as well, and this thought lifts his spirits slightly. All this he gets from a rare but powerful glimpse of his friend’s eyes. He has to force himself to look back to the road.”
A wonderful story and well worth the investment of a few short hours reading.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson