Book Review: The Offing by Benjamin Myers – an unlikely friendship in post-war England

This is one of those small novels that deals with some big things and ties them together in a beautiful package – the perfect little book really. The Offing is told from the point of view of sixteen-year-old Robert Appleyard starting off in the summer of 1946. The world has been turned on its head by war and people are still struggling to get back to normal life. Robert, a Yorkshire coal minder’s son, is destined for the pit, but before his exam results arrive, he decides to pack a sleeping bag and some spare socks and explore the land beyond his home town. He picks up odd jobs here and there, and turns up one day on Dulcie Piper’s doorstep.

Dulcie lives near the sea, surrounded by fields, with a vegetable garden, a larder full of delicatessen items she’s cadged in various ways, and more than a few overflowing bookshelves. She’s an eccentric, getting on a bit, with only Butler, her German shepherd for company. When Robert appears, hot, thirsty and in need of a meal, she invites him to tea and he stays on for his first experience of lobster. And so begins a rich and rewarding friendship.

Any reader would imagine that Dulcie has life well sorted – she’s pretty self-sufficient, grows and forages the ingredients for wonderful meals, has her books and memories. But as Robert stays on and helps around the place – fixing up the garden that is threatened by weeds, and later rebuilding a dilapidated summer-house – he slowly teases from Dulcie her story. And it’s one of tragedy. Dulcie on her part introduces Robert to literature, finding the poetry that will light up Robert’s world and help him consider a life beyond the pit.

‘They made us read Shakespeare.’
‘The sonnets?’
‘Romeo and Juliet, I think it was.’
Dulcie screwed up her face. ‘That’s not poetry,’ she said. ‘That’s archaic drama, written to be performed on theatre stages, not read aloud in stuffy classrooms. Presented incorrectly and out of context it will put you off for life, but a good poem shucks the oyster shell of one’s mind to reveal the pearl within. It gives words to those feelings whose definitions are forever beyond the reach of verbal articulations.’

Dulcie’s conversations with Robert encourage him to think and be more expressive, while revealing all kinds of interesting anecdotes – the time she met D H Lawrence; memories of visiting Germany with her lover before the war. This is balanced by Robert’s experiences of the natural world, his encounters with deer and badgers as well as his thoughts about Dulcie. Nature is rendered vividly as summer wanes into autumn with all the colour and drama you could ask for, set against the shadow of an all-too-recent war.

I can imagine that this novel would make a lovely little film, and maybe that’s because of the way Benjamin Myers builds memorable settings and interesting characters. It’s a gentle read, taking its time to draw you in, but the writing is exquisite. You’ll want to pick up a poem or go for a walk in the countryside after this. Maybe eat something fresh out of the garden. It reminded me of those classics that evoke the English countryside as a foil against which human behaviour plays out – Thomas Hardy, L P Hartely and Laurie Lee, and probably D H Lawrence, spring to mind. As I said before it’s the perfect little book, with a perfect little score of five out of five from me.

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