Author, Benjamin Myers, Bloomsbury, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Offing’ by Benjamin Myers

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 272 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

What a joy and balm for the soul Benjamin Myers’ new novel, The Offing, turned out to be! It tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a teenage boy and an elderly woman in Yorkshire following the Second World War, and I’d be really surprised if it didn’t make my top 10 at the end of the year.

Summer of love

The two main characters are Robert, the 16-year-old son of a coal miner, and Dulcie, an eccentric well-to-do woman who lives alone in a cosy cottage by the sea.

The pair meet by accident when Robert heads off on a solo trek with no real plan other than to escape a pre-ordained life in a Yorkshire coal-mining village, hungry to live life having seen what happened to boys not much older than himself who had gone abroad to fight for England. When he finally reaches the coast at Robin Hood’s Bay, he spots a vine-covered cottage.

The house was built of local stone and was covered by Virginia creeper that clung to it like an octopus to a rock in a storm, its tangled vines reaching tentacle-like around corners. I came upon the house from the rear and traced the strangulating plant’s root as it rose from the ground to run around the side of the building, its leaves fluttering in succession when a light breeze ran across it. It appeared as if in a dream.

Here he comes across Dulcie (and her large dog “Butters”) in her somewhat overgrown garden. She greets him warmly, as if it was perfectly normal to come across a boy on her private patch of land, and invites him to join her for a cup of nettle tea. During their one-sided conversation, for Robert is shy and uncomfortable talking to strangers unless it is to arrange odd jobs for which he’s paid in food and lodgings, Dulcie suggests he could help weed her garden.

He ends up staying the entire summer.

Close friendship

Over the course of the novel, the pair develop a close friendship and Robert blossoms under Dulcie’s tutelage, for want of a better word.

Through their conversations — filled with Dulcie’s forthright no-holds-barred opinions in her trademark colourful (and often laugh-out-loud funny) language — he learns about art and history and cooking and poetry, about compassion and empathy and pain and loss. He learns about the real world outside of Yorkshire and comes to understand that there were two sides to the war.

‘We’d be ruled by Nazis now if they had got their way,’ I said.
Dulcie shook her head, tutting. ‘Worse, Robert. Much worse. We would be ruled by those remaining English stiffs employed by the Nazis to do their bidding. Chinless wonders and lickspittles. There would be no room for the poets or the peacocks, the artists or the queens. Instead we’d be entirely driven by the very wettest of civil servants – even more so than we already are. A legion of pudgy middle managers would be the dreary midwives of England’s downfall.’

As he gets to know Dulcie — and the people in the local village — he realises that for all her warmth and upbeat nature, she holds a terrible secret close to her chest and when he uncovers it, it serves not as an end to their relationship but cements their platonic love for one another even more.

Dulcie herself learns and grows from her relationship with Robert, whom she comes to regard as the son she never had.

And while The Offing is a lovely and heartwarming portrait of intergenerational friendship, love and forgiveness, it’s also a hymn to nature, beauty and the arts. Myers’ descriptions of the landscape, of the ocean, of the weather and of the transformative power of poetry are beautifully evocative, rich and lyrical. His sentences drip with vivid detail and yet his prose has a quiet, understated restraint to it.

The story is both humble and uplifting. It slips down like hot chocolate — smooth, rich and soothing — and brims with wit and wisdom. I loved it.

If you liked this, you might also like:

Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng: Heartwarming tale of an unlikely friendship that develops between a Chinese university student and the elderly lady who provides his lodgings.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Ross Raisin, Setting

‘God’s Own Country’ by Ross Raisin

Gods_own_country

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 211 pages; 2009.

Ross Raisin’s debut novel, God’s Own Country, is about a troubled young Yorkshire farmer who develops a friendship with a teenage girl and runs away with her. It turns the notion of pastoral literature on its head, and is a compelling mix of adventure, Gothic romance and black comedy. Mostly, it is a very disturbing and unsettling read.

No ordinary man

The story is narrated by 19-year-old Sam Marsdyke, who lives on the family farm with his mum and dad. From the outset, we know that Sam is not an ordinary young man — he delights in throwing stones at ramblers, whom he describes as “daft sods”. Later, we learn that he despises “towns”, those people who move from the city to live in rural Yorkshire, because “they couldn’t give a stuff for the Moors, all they wanted was a postcard view out of the bedroom window”.

There are other, darker, elements to his character, which the reader discovers the further you get into the novel (I won’t mention them here, to prevent spoiling the plot, suffice to say they are quite shocking). And as the narrative slowly unfolds, so, too, does Sam’s hold on reality.

And while there’s a menacing undertone to this book, Sam is sympathetically drawn. He has a deep love of the countryside (the descriptions of the moors are particularly vivid) and a love and respect for the livestock he tends. He has an especially tender relationship with a puppy, whom he dotes on.

Black comedy

The story is not without humour. And because it is written in a regional dialect, it ties the narrative to a specific place and imbues it with a real sense of authenticity. The use of language is inventive — a Labrador jumps up onto a gate and “jowled the top of it with drool”, a breeze is “chirring through the trees”,  there’s a “hubbleshoo of small boys spewing out the bus” — and Raisin effortlessly brings scenes to life in gorgeously crafted sentences, such as this one:

Father took hold the wire and wrenched it up. A shimmer of raindrops spring out, arching a rainbow an instant, till they fell to the sod and he began pulling the wire off his post with his hands.

God’s Own Country — the title refers to the beauty of the North York Moors — is best appreciated when read in large chunks, as opposed to a chapter here and a chapter there. It takes a good while for any narrative tension to build, but the patient reader is amply rewarded when Sam goes on the run with the teenage girl who has moved in next door. But the story does get quite confusing towards the end, a reflection of the state of Sam’s mind at the time.

It reminded me very much of Patrick McCabe’s Butcher Boy and even MJ Hyland’s This is How, both of which are far stronger (and more disturbing) novels featuring deeply troubled male narrators, but as a first-time novelist it marks Raisin as an exciting new talent.

God’s Own Country won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award in 2009, The Guildford Book Festival First Novel Award in 2008 and a Betty Trask Award in 2008. It was shortlisted for a host of other awards, including The Guardian First Book Award and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.