Every now and then I read a book that transports me wholly to another time or place, taking me through words to a world so vivid I can practically taste it. Such was The Offing by Benjamin Myers, and sixteen year old Robert Appleyard, the novel’s main character and narrator. Robert sets out in the spring following the end of World War Two to seek the natural world beyond his Northern English coal mining home, having “exhausted the possibilities” of views, woods, animals, moors and seasons that it allows him. As he explains near the start of the book, “only when alone in the wild had I ever come remotely close to beginning to know my true self”. Does that not resonate with those of us who plunge into icy waterfalls, rivers and the sea?
Robert heads south, eventually winding his way to the North York Moors and Robin Hood’s Bay. Here he meets Dulcie Piper, a fiercely independent woman living on a ramshackle plot above the bay, and Butler, her protective German Shepherd. In exchange for food, Robert helps out about the place – clearing the meadow edges, picking nettles for tea and wild garlic for sauce. He intends to stay only one night before heading down to the sea, but Dulcie is entirely different to anyone he has ever met, and he finds himself lingering longer and longer. She introduces Robert to writers he has never heard of – Lawrence, Whitman, Auden, Keats, Dickinson, Bronte, Rossetti – and food he has never tasted. Eventually, while clearing out the studio-shed that is falling to ruin near Dulcie’s house, Robert finds a manuscript and the history of Dulcie’s life before the war unfolds.
The sea is ever-present in the novel – from the view at Dulcie’s house, to Robert’s descriptions of the coal-black beaches of his home, to his swimming in the bay – it is ebbing and flowing but only occasionally taking centre stage. I liked this. It felt like real life, where most of the action takes place away from the water and yet the water forms and shapes our lives. Food is also woven through the novel (which I loved) as Robert encounters new tastes and foods at Dulcie’s that are a world away from the rationing and restriction of the war. The description of the pantry at Dulcie’s sounds quite amazing even in this day and age of plenty:
The sea is ever-present in the novel. It feels like real life, where most of the action takes place away from the water and yet the water forms and shapes our lives.
“I saw stacked in a rack at least two, perhaps three, dozen bottles of wine, both read and white. There were other bottles too, containing spirits I had never tasted. Whisky, cognac, gin, plus cherry brandy and ones labelled with words I had never seen: GRAPPA, SCHNAPPS and METAXA. From floor to ceiling the shelves were packed with tins of meat and fish and beans and soup, and different bags of flour – buckwheat and rye – plus sugar and rice, and packets of biscuits and bars of chocolate. There were two large dried sausages and jars featuring various seasonings, chutneys, pickles and preserves. Some of the labels appeared to be in German. There were boxes too, containing exotic-looking delicacies such as figs and dates and Turkish delight, and bottles of cooking oil and fruit cordial. As well as the large bowl of butter, there was also a tray of twenty or more eggs and two small wheels of cheese wrapped in green leaves. On the floor in a wooden crate there were fruits and vegetables. I saw apples, carrots, potatoes, kale, celery, spring onions” (p.51).
In the aftermath of a country recovering from war, such riches are unusual to say the least and add to Dulcie’s mystery, which is never quite revealed. The Offing is about our relationships with nature – the sea, the meadow, the wild – and the way these elements impact our lives. But it is also about the human relationships that shape and mould us. It is beautifully written, and entirely immersive. I thoroughly recommend reading it now, as we move from summer into autumn. It will stay with you through the long dark days to come.