With our current political preoccupations concerning citizenship, immigration and nationality there’s a lot of talk about borders. (What borders will be formed between the UK and Europe?) But in Benjamin Myers’ recent novel “The Offing” the borders directly referenced are invisible lines in the natural environment. The title refers to “That distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge. It’s called the offing.” These are borders that we only imagine exist because of our subjective point of view. And the novel begins with 16 year old Robert Appleyard stepping out of the borders of his small Northern coal mining town, the place where he’s been raised to believe he should spend his life working in the pits that men in his family have toiled in for generations. But he’s determined to see something of the world first. What he discovers is a point of view and way of seeing which is very different from what he’s known in his circumscribed existence. During his journey he meets and befriends Dulcie, a reclusive and highly-cultured older woman who doesn’t play by society’s rules. Myers presents in this beautiful tale conversations which cross borders of class, gender, sexuality and nationality to speak about the importance of preserving our individual voice and creative spirit – especially during times of political strife.
The novel begins like a fable or quest story where a young man embarks out into the unknown and this gives it a timeless feeling at first. I know from reading Myers’ brilliant novel “Beastings” that his prose frequently gives a sense that the story could have occurred in any time or place. But, as Robert encounters more people, he sees families who have lost sons in the war and there’s talk of fighting Hitler. It’s interesting getting a story set around WWII where the characters are so removed from it but still feel the reverberations of its impact. Robert is puffed up with nationalist spirit, but Dulcie cautions him against categorizing groups of people solely on their national identity. She explains how it leads to otherness and borders between people which leads to war: “Nationalism is an infection, Robert, a parasite, and after years of recession many were willing hosts.” Although this isn’t an overtly political novel, I found it really powerful how Myers describes ways of seeing beyond the rhetoric of government and social structures to show how these are illusions.
This point of view is embodied in the character of Dulcie who is so spirited and funny while having a sometimes spiky edge and a secret past. I felt really sympathetic to the narrator because I would have similarly gravitated to and been eager to learn from someone like Dulcie who casually refers to her close acquaintance with Noel Coward. I enjoy how their friendship develops in tentative steps as both Robert and Dulcie are guarded with their feelings and hesitant to admit they need other people. Myers is excellent in capturing the subtly of emotions in characters who aren’t very outwardly emotional. There’s also a dramatic tension which builds as the mystery surrounding Dulcie grows when an unpublished manuscript of poetry is unearthed.
Another great strength of this novel is in the evocative and poetic way it describes the natural world – which is another consistent characteristic of Myers’ writing. Not only is Robert’s journey through the English landscape beautifully described, but it’s a form of tunnelling into history and shows it to be a repository of the past: “the cliffs were in a perpetual state of reshaping, where chimneys and scarps and shelves periodically fell crumbling, and where time was marked not by years or decades or centuries, but by the re-emergence of those species trapped in the clay here: the ammonites, haematites and bracken fronds pressed flat between the pages of past epochs. Each was a bookmark placed in Britain’s ongoing story, and the land itself was a sculpture, a work in progress.” I admire how this positions the landscape not as a possession to be claimed and fenced off, but an artwork which is shaped by inhabiting it.
Reading “The Offing” I got that satisfying sensation where my curiosity gradually built to a rapt attention and I felt wholly enveloped and charmed by the story. It speaks poignantly about the importance of moving beyond the life which you’re assigned to discover who you really are and what you want. It’s also a tribute to the enduring power of poetry.