:: Article

The Offing

By Chris Brownsword.

Ben Myers, The Offing (Bloomsbury, 2019)

Following the critical and commercial success of The Gallows Pole, Benjamin Myers once more delivers a work of stunning lyrical prowess depicting a world both distant and contemporary in which inner and outer landscapes become fused through sheer force of vision.

Set in the aftermath of WWII, The Offing follows sixteen-year-old Robert Appleyard as he sets off on foot to explore rural Yorkshire. Like Billy Casper in Barry Hines’s classic A Kestrel for a Knave, Robert seeks release in nature against a bleak future comprised of six days in a colliery and the Sabbath recovering from a hangover. Unlike Billy, however, whose attempts are frustrated at every turn, Robert is befriended by a kindly older woman, Dolcie, and her charming pet dog, Butters.

Inhabiting a shabby cottage overlooking Robin Hood’s Bay, Dolcie wastes little time in schooling Robert in her pagan philosophy: ‘One needs a little colour in life, even if it is illusory. And life without flavour is death’. As the bond of friendship is strengthened over simple meals and a shared appreciation of poetry, Dolcie guides Robert in discovering his own voice, while he in turn helps her overcome past grief.

With only two main characters, and few extras, Myers broadens his canvas by zooming in and out of the human drama to bring the surrounding countryside and seascape more clearly into focus. Indeed, although a work of fiction, every page of The Offing appears wrought of the finest rhapsodic poetry and nature writing; recounting his adventures from the perspective of seniorhood, the young Appleyard is part Patrick Leigh Fermor, part Laurie Lee, while Dolcie evokes such daring freethinkers as Nancy Cunard and Nan Shepherd.

More tranquil than Myers’s previous explorations in historical and crime fiction, the idyllic existence Robert stumbles into nonetheless remains uncertain, for the corrosive mist of battle has yet to fully disperse, and stains everything and everyone — ‘I was neither old enough to have made myself a hero,’ Robert reflects, ‘nor young enough to have escaped the newsreel images or the long dark shadows that the returning soldiers dragged behind them like empty coffins’.

The title of the novel refers to the place where sea and sky merge, the novel itself representing a fold in time and space, fixed in the past yet speaking to us of the present, a kind of invocation that Eros, the creative spirit, might awaken and prevail in a volatile age that once more appears poised upon the brink of desolation. As Dolcie instructs Robert, ‘Let poetry and music and wine and romance guide the way’. Well, sure, at this point in the barbarous tragedy and absurd comedy of human affairs, why the hell not?

Chris Brownsword was born in Sheffield, England. Recent poetry and fiction reviews have appeared in Riggwelter, Tentacular/Elsewhere, and Now Then. His Word Riot review of Mark SaFranko’s 2014 crime novel, The Suicide, has been quoted in a critical study by Heather Duerre Humann, at Florida Gulf Coast University.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 11th, 2019.