“Sixteen is a foreign country.” [Dulcie]
Benjamin Myers’ first novel for Bloomsbury is a radical change of timbre, an altogether lighter tone than that of his last book, The Gallows Pole. No less intelligent, The Offing is a wonderfully intimate and charming story that oozes humanity and a keen perception of the central relationships between Robert and Dulcie secluded in their post-WWII hideaway. As you might expect, Myers’ love of nature, poetry and ‘The North’ shine out from the page, his heartfelt themes of exclusion and working-class life are evident but the style of this novel is different. What might surprise you is the sensitive beauty of this work. It’s a rites of passage tale that not only looks at the change from boy to man as Robert learns to find his own feet but of the interaction with Dulcie which opens up a wider perspective on the world for the youth. The poor are held back by lack opportunity not a lack of innate talents. Sixteen-year-old Robert Appleyard is a rare young man, he knows what awaits him at the pit in his Durham mining village but he decides to break with expectation, to explore, to satisfy his wanderlust. Robert loves nature, something he has an intimate knowledge of around his home but he wants to see more. Robert is lucky, the war has come to an end, it would not have been possible to take time out if the conflict was still raging. His journey is as much self-investigation as anything exterior. He knows that soon he will have to settle back into the life his contemporaries have already accepted.
The Offing is also an insightful exploration of a relationship that crosses generational boundaries, gender and class. Dulcie, much older, a woman who knows Noel Coward and whose father was a friend of John Buchan in Canada becomes mentor to Robert, a boy from a mining family with a ‘pitmatic’ twang and no proper education. Were it not for the isolation of their abode and the Bohemian attitude of Dulcie, a real meeting of minds would not be possible. The novel is about far and near, Robert’s story is related in old age, at some distance, Dulcie has distanced herself from her past but the closeness and openness of the two, their intimacy lead to revelations that change both their lives.
Despite its many qualities no one would accuse The Gallows Pole, winner of the Walter Scott Prize of being charming, words like visceral and brutal more readily spring to mind. It’s always surprising when you are familiar with an author and they change style dramatically but Myers is a very talented writer, there is no reason why he should be hemmed in by any particular genre, style or groove.
The Offing opens with Robert, now an old man, reflecting on the past:
“But I was a young man once, so young and green, and that can never change. Memory allows me to be so again.”
Spring, 1946. Robert has set out with a few meagre possessions, no need for a razor. He wanders south; Durham to Cumbria to North Yorkshire. His road will bring him to the coast and a small isolated cottage. Robert observes nature and Myers is in his element writing about flora and fauna.
“ I had fished and ferreted, ratted and ensnared . . .I wanted to experience so much more of what was happening out there, beyond the confines of the rural colliery village that sat in the softly undulating fields between the city and the sea.”
The young man has worked for a meal, logging, lambing, droving, sleeping in barns and sheds and he has kissed a girl. He is old enough to be blighted by the memory of war but too young to have fought.
“Allied victory did not taste sweet and the winters that followed would be as frosted and unforgiving as any.”
The cottage at the end of a narrow path is owned by a tall slightly eccentric, free-spirited woman, Dulcie. She offers Robert tea and sends him off to collect the nettles to make the brew (nettles don’t sting when boiled she tells him). Dulcie Piper sees something in the boy, he senses her loneliness, the tragedy that belies her demeanour. They talk, Robert asks if she believes in God? “Hmmph. Buck and fugger to that.” She says. He is C of E but more by rote than thought. Dulcie tells Robert of the Icelandic sagas and raises for the first time the thought that he could go to university. Robert thinks that is not for people like him. Poetry? Soppy stuff, he says, but Dulcie counters that it is freedom, adventure, nature, wanderlust. Robert comes across The Offing by Romy Landau, a volume of poetry, he doesn’t fully understand it but the poems move him. They are modernist, dark, filled with longing and despair. When he talks to Dulcie the story of the German Jewish refugee poet and their tragic relationship emerges. The two bond over the poetry . . .
The Offing is a touching portrait of memory and loss, of starting out in life and the joy youth can bring to age and the wisdom age can bring to youth. Neither will ever be the same again.
This eighth novel from Myers will bring him a wider audience, it’s deserved. The novel will make a fine BBC 4 ‘Book at Bedtime’ and a brilliant subject for a readers groups. For those interested in Myers here’s an excerpt of my review of The Gallows Pole:
‘. . . privy to a period of history and an important moment in Britain’s past that I had only been vaguely aware of. The 1760s, a small gang of men execute a plan to counterfeit coins and pull off an audacious fraud. This novel is a crime story and an historical adventure but more importantly it’s a literary novel. It’s themes are very contemporary; the lives of the people of the Calder Valley 250 years ago have echoes in the age of austerity – disenfranchisement, poverty, isolation and lack of voice. When people have nothing what is there to lose? why do the rules society operates by matter when you have nothing? Make no mistake, it is clear that David Hartley has no higher motive, he is no Robin Hood, there is nothing glossy or virtuous about the man, except his desire to protect his own and a vague feeling for the poor. Yet the popular uprising that the Coiners represent is a reaction to oppression and tyranny, just as the Tolpuddle Martyrs and The Rebecca Riots were, (do they come from the same motivation?) This is a visceral tale, brutal and rough and rooted in the reality of ordinary people’s lives at the time. The language is plain, earthy and evocative. The reimagining of the men of the Calder Valley, their environment seems pitch perfect. . .’
Paul Burke 5/5
The Offing by Benjamin Myers
Bloomsbury Circus 9781526611314 hbk Aug 2019