It’s a brave writer who takes on a classic novel that’s sold more than 11 million copies worldwide and counting. Whether in bookshops, libraries or classrooms, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, first published in 1945, is still finding new readers today, its core subject matter still universally relevant and timely: too much power corrupts. What then can a reimagined, 21st-century version hope to achieve? Can it stand comparison with the original? Can it stand alone as a work of interest to contemporary readers?
Happily for Adam Biles’s second novel Beasts of England, the answer to these questions is largely yes. A delicately subversive sequel-of-sorts to Orwell’s masterpiece, it works as a dark allegory of our modern world, where recent and continuing disasters, from pandemics to global political upheavals to environmental catastrophes, provide more than enough material for compelling satire.
Biles starts with a great title – ironic, jingoistic, metaphoric and literal – and goes on to chart a year in the life of the animals (and occasional human) at Manor Farm in the south of England, where the electorate’s dissatisfaction with the long-ruling and increasingly ineffectual Buttercup the Pig is seized upon by political rivals looking to stage a coup.
Whereas Orwell’s story had its roots in socialism and communism, Biles looks to excoriate the populist politics of our internet age. In doing so, he manages the tricky feat of both honouring and updating the original material. There are plenty of nods to Animal Farm, such as the warring political factions of the Jonesists and Animalists, or the farm motto – all animals are more equal than others – which over the course of an action-packed narrative gets reworked to: Manor Farm for Manor Beasts. The ugly, self-serving politics behind this school of thought makes for infuriating reading.
Biles is an English writer and translator based in Paris, where he is literary director at Shakespeare and Company, and host of their weekly podcast. Feeding Time, his debut novel, was a book of the year for the Guardian, the Observer, The Irish Times and the Millions in 2016. Beasts of England is an intelligent and well-crafted follow-up. A relatively simple structure, with chapter breaks marked by months of the year moving forward in time, serves the story well, as does Biles’s nimble omniscient perspective and his supple, expressive prose.
The anthropomorphism of the animals is done with great flair. Buttercup the deposed leader is “a lean boar, with a firm gut, a charming grin and a youthful air, although the strain of running the farm for over five years had carved deep creases around his eyes”. The malevolent dogs, Dunning and Kruger, have “frowning, chevron faces, their black monocle-patches and equally black noses glistening on their white fur like lumps of coal in a snowdrift”. Meanwhile, at the other end of the food chain, there’s Quaver, “a timid, jaundiced teacup pig, who always resolutely refused to take sides”.
The mix of names is inspired – a cow pumped up on steroids known as John Bully Beef, Martha the inquisitive young Brent goose, wise old gander Duke – and helps to delineate between the perspectives, which is important as the cacophony of the various viewpoints occasionally overwhelms the story. With so many machinations and intrigues, it’s hard to keep up with the Jonesists, and the pace can flag as a result.
At times like this it’s difficult to ignore the obvious comparative negative, namely that part of Animal Farm’s genius was the originality of the premise, but to be fair, Biles is commendably innovative within these parameters. His novel is loaded with depressingly familiar real-world parallels, from lavish redecorations of leaders’ premises (Boris Johnson), to anti-immigration rhetoric used to stir dissent (Trump et al), the Wufflu virus that decimates certain populations, the sense of imminent environmental ruin: “She encountered a vast open pit, several times larger than the farmyard. And almost every inch of it was covered. The rusted skeletons of tractors and threshers groped skyward like the remains of a metallic forest.”
Most impressive of all are the magnificent starlings, whose elaborate formations in the sky act as a metaphor for fake news and the manipulation of the masses. In the end, the lower ranking animals are left not knowing what to believe. Overworked, starving, dying, they vote in rigged elections for a leader who is “unmoored from reality, uttering more lies than he was taking breaths, making claims for which he gave no evidence, because no evidence existed”. Beasts of England is a grim and clever take on Orwell for our modern times, a call to arms that offers a sliver of hope, a small window on its way to closing: “There were two ways this could go, and neither was fated.”