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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.

Dulcie frequently makes Robert nettle tea.

Dulcie frequently makes Robert nettle tea.

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.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesBenjamin Myers
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When a conflict is composed as perfectly as it is in “Beastings” no flourishes are needed. The prose in this novel are so pared down that the primary characters don’t even have names. A Girl races over the countryside in Northern England with a kidnapped baby. She is pursued by a Priest who has employed a Poacher with a dog to help track and find her. Instead of distancing you from the characters this anonymity makes you feel closer to the essential cores of these individuals. The Girl is a mute. Through her quiet actions and careful tending of the baby that she tries desperately to protect and care for her nature is revealed. The same is true in her pursuers whose perfectly pitched dialogue shows the sinister determination and self-righteousness of the drug-fuelled Priest as well as the down-to-earth humour and practicality of the Poacher. The chase becomes a battle of wills where the characters are driven to their breaking points until the thrilling climax is reached.

The Girl is someone who feels she comes from nothing and is nothing as she is an orphan raised by nuns and the Priest. But the responsibility of taking the child changes this: “without the child who relied upon her she did not know if she would exist any longer. So long as there was this responsibility – this bond – life had a purpose.” Her journey becomes as much about gradually acquiring a sense of self worth as well as protecting the baby she’s rescued from an abusive home. As the central characters travel through the country and towns, they encounter a range of fascinating individuals – some with generous spirits and others with more mixed motives. One of the most fascinating is a cave dwelling man named Tom Solomon who suggests that life can be lived separated from mainstream society. He muses: “Feels good to go feral from time to time though. Of course it does. Because you can’t feel lonely with nature as your companion.” Not only do these characters add momentum to the story, but their multifarious points of view suggest a building statement the author is making about society and ways of living.

Painting by Mary Cassatt. "Beastings" means the first milk secreted by the mammary glands.

Painting by Mary Cassatt. "Beastings" means the first milk secreted by the mammary glands.

Myers’ writing has a succinct clean beauty which draws you into this story. His language becomes more honed in and intense as the characters emotionally and physically break down during their arduous travels. When the Girl is in a particularly bad stretch without access to water she feels “Thirst like she had never known. A thirst to turn the world yellow. Make her eyeballs tingle and her throat scream. Lips crack. Teeth itch. Panic.” You feel the physical experience in these sharpened precise choices of words. It’s this bodily immersion in this chase which gripped me as I read. This exciting, nerve-wracking tale is also a heartfelt cry against moral hypocrisy of the worst kind. Although the Girl is reduced to clawing over the landscape for sustenance like an animal, it’s the authority figure that is revealed as the true primordial creature. As one character rebukes “You’re all at it you religious lot. Beast behaviour.”

One of the most powerful things that struck me about this novel was its unique take on the experience of survival. We who get to sit comfortably reading novels have survived in life when so many others have perished through circumstance and bad luck. Although life can be gruellingly difficult, there is a guilt attached with the bare fact of survival. At one point Myers writes “Think of your poor siblings next time you’re shedding those tears said the Sisters. Up there with those un-Godly beasts. Those wicked wicked people. No. You were the lucky one girl.” With this challenge the Girl courageously goes forth to survive on her own terms. She has been lucky to survive where others have not, but she will no longer compromise. Her trials to achieve true independence make for a powerful, gripping story. Falling into the stripped down and savage world of “Beastings” I was totally enthralled.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesBenjamin Myers