Tag Archives: 1940s

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.

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom: Families and how to survive them

Cover imageUnusually for me, I came to Amy Bloom’s writing through her short stories. Her first collection, Come to Me, was published when I was still a bookseller and I was interested by Bloom’s background as a psychotherapist, made much of when I was pitched the book. I think she was still practising then. It seemed to me after reading her stories that she must be a very fine therapist indeed: they were quietly empathetic, understanding of human weakness. From her biographical notes it looks as if Bloom has long since given up her practice and is writing full-time but Lucky Us has that same empathetic quality which makes flawed characters so attractive, and there are many in this novel, often pretending to be someone completely different from the person they are.

It opens strikingly with Eva, delivered to her father’s door and left there with only a small suitcase to show for her twelve years with her mother. Edgar’s wife has died leaving him with Iris, Eva’s sixteen-year-old half-sister and Eva’s mother has spotted an opportunity. Tangled relationships, already, and we’re not even through the first chapter – there will be many more to come. Stretching over a decade from 1939, Lucky Us follows Eva from her unceremonious arrival following her eccentric route through all kinds of permutations of family which takes her to Hollywood with Iris then east across the country into the welcoming, generous arms of the Torellis, before tragedy propels her into life as a fortune-teller easing the sorrows of New York ladies, then eventually to an entirely satisfactory if surprising resolution.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable ride – from descriptions of decadent Hollywood parties to stories of life in a German displaced persons camp, Bloom’s writing is vibrant and her characterisation astute. She knows how to turn a stylish phrase but it’s not showy stuff, and all the better for that. The daughter of ‘a mother who dropped [her] off like a bag of dirty laundry’ and a father ‘ who was not above stealing from [her]’, Eva is quietly smart, mature and capable under the most difficult of circumstances while Iris, seemingly steely in her determination to be a star, finds herself derailed by passion, behaving in an unforgivable fashion. Poignancy is laced with a pleasingly sly humour and after a little awkwardness with its structure – at least for me – it flows beautifully. A long way from psychotherapy then – although there’s a nice moment when Eva neatly turns her fortune-telling into an effective bit of therapy – but just as humane and empathetic as her early work.

And that’s it for me for a week or so. I’m off to the land of cream teas and alpacas for a spot of walking and no doubt some reading.