The Offing by Benjamin Myers: The summer that changed everything

Cover imageFor some reason I hadn’t got around to reading Benjamin Myers despite recommendations by lots of people whose opinion I trust. The Gallows Pole has been on my TBR list for quite some time but it was the arrival of The Offing which finally kicked me into action. Myers’ new novel sees an old man remembering the summer after the Second World War when he tramped out of the pit village where his family lived for generations, eager for adventure.

Robert Appleyard knows that he’s destined for a life down the pit. There’s nothing else to do in his village but he’s determined to see a bit of the country before drudgery sets in. He works his way south to Whitby then onwards, picking up casual work here and there, eked out by the generosity of strangers, and sleeping in farm sheds. One day, he takes a turning down a lane which leads him to Dulcie Price, a woman quite unlike anyone he’s met. Tall, sharp-tongued and clearly posh, Dulcie welcomes him with nettle tea and the kind of conversation which leaves Robert taciturn but intrigued. Determined to work for the delicious supper Dulcie later puts on the table, he camps in her overgrown field then sets about scything it next day. One day turns into two and despite his protestations that it’s time he was moving on, he finds more work to do for Dulcie, setting about renovating the shack that was once a studio. There he finds a manuscript of poems by Romy Landau. When he asks Dulcie about it, she’s uncharacteristically quiet but over the course of a seemingly endless summer, Dulcie tells Romy’s sad story which is also her own. As autumn appears on the horizon, Robert walks back the way he came, a new friend made and both their lives changed irrevocably.

But I was a young man once, so young and green, and that can never change. Memory allows me to be so again  

Myers bookends Robert’s recollections with his thoughts as an elderly man so that we know both his roots and what he has become. The war casts a long shadow over the country sixteen-year-old Robert walks though: grief, hunger and deprivation are all too apparent yet so is kindness and generosity.

War is war: it’s started by the few and fought by the many, and everyone loses in the end.

With its evocative descriptions of the natural world, Myers’ account of Robert’s stay with Dulcie feels both timeless and unending. The wonderfully imagined Dulcie is undoubtedly the star of the show: forthright and delightfully eccentric, she’s artistically well connected – casually throwing her friendship with Noël Coward into the conversation – and determined that this bright young boy should live rather than just exist. Who can resist a character who declares:

Books are just paper, but they contain within them revolutions.

Indeed, they do, both large and small as Robert goes on to demonstrate.

27 thoughts on “The Offing by Benjamin Myers: The summer that changed everything”

  1. I’ve read everything Myers has written from back when he wrote his first fiction book, Pig Iron. I love his writing and his is a much more mature piece of work. As though he’s been working towards this book, honing his skills to get to this. I’ve 20 pages yet to read, but it’s a gentle pastoral work, evoking the kindness of strangers, inter-generational friendship and patronage. The prose is beautifully evocative. Lovely.

      1. Pig Iron is a favourite of mine. The Gallows Pole was excellent and brilliantly structured. Under the Rock is his non-fiction, kind of memoir of the time he’s lived in his village near Hebden Bridge and goes some way to explain his love of the outdoors. His crime fiction is quite hardcore and grisly. It’s not for everyone but I like the 2 main characters. He’s a real talent and this book as well as his move to Bloomsbury, who have a bigger marketing/editing budget and, let’s face it, reader reach he’s likely to hit much bigger audiences. Bluemoose, his previous publisher are brilliant but it was always inevitable he would outgrow them. His success is also theirs.

        1. It would be nice to see that acknowledged rather in the way that Pan Macmillan did with The Stinging Fly and Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home collection. Thanks for this, Sarah. I’ll probably give the crime books a miss and start with Pig Iron or The Gallows Pole, whichever I spot first next time I’m in a bookshop.

  2. This sounds great. The Gallows Pole went on, and then away from, my radar as other things trumped it. I may well read The Offing first now!

  3. I’m a hige fan of his writing and his use of dialect. I had tickets to see him at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Unfortunately, he pulled out of the event but hopefully I’ll get another chance in the future to hear him talk about his work. I’ve just ordered the latest novel and have high hopes that I’ll like it as much as the others although I read a crticial review recently that it was a bit tamer in tone than his previous work which is usually very dark and quite violent.

    1. I can’t compare it with any of his others as it’s the first I’ve read but it’s neither dark nor violent, although the immediate post-war background is sombre. I’d be interested to hear what you think of it, Helen.

  4. I read The Gallows Pole when it was shortlisted for The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and predicted it would win for its style and originality, which it did. This sounds like another great book…added to my wishlist.

  5. This sounds wonderful. I’m a sucker for inter-generational friendship stories and Dulcie sounds a treat. It also seems reminiscent of the wonderful A Month in the Country – the summer setting, the shadow of war, an old man looking back. You’re terrible for my TBR Susan 🙂

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