Another of my round-up posts – this one focusing on two terrific books, both with a connection to the countryside.
The Offing by Benjamin Myers (2019)
This is such a beautiful, life-affirming book – a novel imbued with great warmth, a generosity of spirit and a strong sense of place.
The Offing is set in the English countryside in the summer of 1946, the year following the end of the Second World War. Although the conflict is over, the emotional scars remain, festering in the hearts and minds of the men following their return from battle, their shattering experiences too recent to suppress.
With little to look forward to other than a lifetime of work in the local pits, sixteen-year-old Robert sets out from his village in Durham to see something of the wider world outside. He envisages a journey with no set plan; just a desire to live from one day to the next, picking up a day’s work here and there in exchange for food and shelter.
At the approach to Robin Hood’s Bay, Robert spots a lane leading down to a secluded cottage. Here he stumbles across Dulcie, a tall, middle-aged woman of unconventional dress who greets him as if he were a familiar friend, just popping over as expected. Robert is invited to stay for nettle tea – an invitation he accepts, thereby sparking an unlikely friendship, one that ends up lasting the entire summer.
Dulcie is a wonderful creation – confident, direct and delightfully outspoken. At first, Robert is somewhat shy and reserved in Dulcie’s company, a little intimidated by her forthright views of the world. Nevertheless, he soon recognises this generous woman for what she truly is – wise, well-travelled and progressive in her outlook, someone with the potential to fuel his mind as well as his body. In return for a run of delicious meals and a shack for shelter, Robert clears Dulcie’s overgrown garden of weeds, an activity punctuated by long walks across the surrounding fields with Dulcie’s trusty dog, Butler.
Throughout the summer, Dulcie encourages Robert to read poetry to broaden his outlook, lending him books by D. H. Lawrence, John Clare and Keats amongst others. When the topic of war comes up in the conversation, Dulcie is quick to challenge Robert on his views of the Germans, reminding him that they are not so different from the British – mere pawns in a deadly game of chess.
‘…War is war: it’s started by the few and fought by the many, and everyone loses in the end. There’s no glory in bloodshed and bullet holes. Not a bit of it. I also happen to know that Germany has been left in a terrible state too, and always remember that most of those young men – boys the same age as you are now, no doubt – did not want to be there either. It’s always the honest folk that have to do the bidding of the despots. And after all there are only a few things truly worth fighting for: freedom, of course, and all that it brings with it. Poetry, perhaps, and a good glass of wine. A nice meal. Nature. Love, if you’re lucky. And that’s about it. Don’t hate the Germans; many of them are just like you and me.’ (p. 41)
With Dulcie’s encouragement, Robert begins to feel more alive to the possibilities open to him, with the realisation that there is much more to life than merely following in his father’s footsteps down the mine. He gains a deeper appreciation of the simple things in life, like the wonders of the natural world and the value of education. In short, Dulcie inspires Robert to live his own life – just as she has chosen to live hers. And there’s another payoff too, one for Dulcie. In the fullness of time, Robert enables this independent woman to come to terms with a painful event from her past, something she has been trying to suppress for the last six years.
In writing The Offing, Myers has given us such a gorgeous, compassionate book, one that demonstrates the power of human connection in a damaged world. Alongside its themes of hope, individualism and recovery, the novel can also be seen as an evocative paean to the natural world. Myers writes beautifully about the countryside in a way that feels at once both timely and timeless, perfectly capturing the ephemeral feel of a glorious English summer.
The tiniest details came into sharp focus: the skeletal architecture of a small dead leaf that had lain untouched since winter, or the quiver of a solitary blade of wild grass where others beside it were still. The gentle panting of the dog too fell into the rhythm of my own heart as it beat a gentle pattern of sweet coursing blood in my eardrums. A single drop of sweat ran down my left temple. I felt alive. Gloriously, deliriously alive. (p. 45–46)
There are shades of J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country in this transcendent novel, maybe L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, too. If you liked either of those, chances are you’ll really enjoy this too.
The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014)
A haunting, deeply moving book about death, grief, brutality and compassion – beautifully expressed in spare, poetic prose.
Like the Myers, The Dig is rooted in the countryside. However, this is a very different kind of place to the one portrayed in The Offing. Here the environment is tough, feral and visceral; a setting characterised by the undercurrent of cruelty in the natural world.
Recently widowed Daniel is a sheep farmer, struggling to keep on top of the lambing season deep in rural Wales. He is quiet and hard-working, his days dictated by the rhythm of his flock, the demands of the farm acting as a respite from grief.
He tried to put it as clearly as he understood it. He could not bear the responsibility of small talk, reassuring people he was coping. He seemed to know the offer of sympathy would be like a gate he’d go crashing through. He could bear only the huge responsibility to the ewes, to the farm working, which would be tyrannical and which was in process now, and which didn’t care about him.
‘After?’ asked his mother.
I don’t know after,’ he said. And truly he didn’t. She held him then, and she felt the massive devastation of him. (p. 50)
Daniel’s story is interspersed with glimpses of another inhabitant of the community, ‘the big man’, a badger-baiter whose underground activities risk attracting attention from the police. The baiter is a sinister presence in the book, one who hunts at night, using savage dogs to trap badgers for use in the mercilessly cruel sport. (For the uninitiated, badger-baiting – an illegal activity in the UK – involves pitting a badger against a ferocious dog, typically resulting in the death of the badger and often seriously injuring the dog.)
As the narrative unfolds, the lives of the two men intersect with devastating consequences.
By now you’re probably thinking of this as a brutal book, one that features distressing scenes of badgers being exploited for sport. Well, that’s true; but one of the roles of fiction is to raise uncomfortable issues, challenging our beliefs and preconceptions of the world around us. While we may wish to think of the countryside as a peaceful place, we should also recognise the sense of darkness it can foster, the innate violence it can breed.
In writing The Dig, Jones has crafted an enduring story of loss, isolation and savagery in a harsh, unforgiving world. And yet there is great tenderness here too, a sense of beauty and poetry in the language, particularly in Daniel’s memories of times past. The writing has a meditative quality to it, perfectly capturing Daniel’s love for his wife and the intense pain of her loss. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates this aspect of the novella.
He remembered the sight of her in the cab of the tractor while she drove along the rows of bales and he stacked them on the trailer as the boys threw them up. He remembered the sweat and the itch of seed, the burn of the baling twine inside his fingers, the bales grazing his knuckles, the diesel air about the tractor. He remembered her with the bright splash of colour of the cloth worn on her head, how they had joked that she looked girlish and Alpine. Heidi they had called her that day, and how he had wanted her in the rich way we can want a woman we physically work with, and how he was glad it was his wife he wanted this way. (p. 91)
The Offing is published by Bloomsbury (personal copy), The Dig by Granta; my thanks to the publisher/Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.
I heard B. Myers interviewed about The Offing on a radio book programme, and liked what he said about himself and this novel- your post confirms it: one for the list. I know that part of the country well – I spent some of my childhood nearby.
Oh, that must have been interesting. I’d like to hear him talk about this, for sure. Maybe there’s something on Sounds I could listen to – I’ll take a look. You’d like this one, I think, especially given your connection to the area.
I have skimmed past your review of The Offing because I am half-way through it at the moment. But I was so interested to see your mention of A Month in the Country – a few pages in to The Offing, I took my copy of AMitC off my shelf to read next because I was reminded of it so much. Really looking forward to finishing both some time soon!
Super! Yes, completely understand the skimming thing – I do the same with reviews of books in my TBR, especially if they’re high on the ‘might-read-next’ list. It’s reassuring to hear that you were reminded of the Carr, too. Maybe it’s a combination of the setting and the tone? That sense of capturing a pivotal time in a young man’s life amidst the glow of an idyllic summer…
Yes, I think you sum up the link perfectly. It helps also that the covers of my copies of both books feel very similar too.
Yes! A very smart move on the part of the publisher. The paperback cover for The Offing is so much better than its h/b equivalent – more appealing aesthetically. Plus it’s great match for the setting too. Well done Bloomsbury!
I could never read a book featuring a badger baiter. I see and retweet too much on Twitter about this. It upsets me so much.
The Offing sounds beautiful. I’m surprised to see you read a contemporary historical fiction novel.
Funnily enough, I knew The Dig wouldn’t be for you as soon as I picked it up. You’d like Jones’s prose, I think, but not the subject matter.
As for The Offing, it reads like a novel written in the 20th century, very much in style of A Month in the Country (which was published in 1980). The prose has a classic, traditional feel, perfectly in step with the novel’s post-war setting. I think you’d like it a lot.
Both books sound well worth the read.
Your point about the countryside being cruel sometimes is a good one. I grew up in a rural area. There are many virtues to be found there. But there are also dark and malicious things that manifest themselves in a very particular way,
Yes, I don’t think we should kid ourselves that everything about the countryside is beautiful or bucolic. There’s a harshness in it too, often stemming from the quest for survival. In The Dig, Jones does an excellent job of highlighting how animals can be exploited for a repulsive form of ‘entertainment’ and financial gain. Like any good writer, he doesn’t explicitly judge or condemn his protagonist, but the horror of the big man’s actions are there for us to see.
I loved The Offing. Dulcie is such a vividly drawn character, isn’t she. I was particularly taken with the influence she and Robert had on each other’s lives. Gorgeous descriptive writing, too.
Yes, wonderful. I really liked the two-way element of their relationship as well. At first, you think it’s going to be Dulcie doing all the giving, sewing the seeds of ambition and independence in Robert’s mind; but then the way Robert repays her generosity, by helping to bring a sense of closure to events from the past, feels equally symbolic. It’s beautifully judged.
The Offing sounds wonderful, Jacqui, especially as you draw comparisons with A Month in the Country. Oddly, I watched a short programme about Robin Hood’s Bay not that long ago, and so the setting appeals too. I shall look out for it, but like Caroline probably not The Dig. I’m very partial to badgers…
I think you’d like The Offing. It’s so evocative, alive with the lush greenery of the countryside and the wonders of nature. I don’t know that area at all, but Myers’ descriptions do seem to convey a very vivid picture of the setting. Definitely worth considering if you’re in the mood for something pastoral.
Read both of these and loved them. I thought The Offing was one of the best books I read last year; it made my top 10 for 2019. I’m pretty sure The Dig made my Top 10 the year I read it, too. I’ve got Cynan’s latest novella here… I think it will be one of my 20 Books of Summer reads.
Oh, excellent. Is that Stillicide? I think I caught a little bit of it on the radio last year. Must have been a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime or something like that…
The only Cynan Jones I’ve read was Cove which I thought was excellent and left me fully intending to read more. Reviews of The Offing have all been very positive as well, though I suspect I may prefer The Gallows Pole.
Ah, I knew you’d read something by Jones but couldn’t recall which one. The Cove, right – I’ll add that to the list – thanks. As you say, The Offing might not be the Myers for you. The Gallows Pole has been recommended to me on Twitter,.as has Beastings, so you might be on safer ground with one of those two!
The Offing sounds wonderful, I love that kind of setting and the character of Dulcie sounds great.
I’m pretty sure you would love it, Ali. It feels very much in the style of the type of novels we both enjoy – evocative setting, in-depth characterisation, emotional investment and gorgeous writing. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Offing sounds brilliant (but is the dog OK in it to the end??). I could not read the other one, of course. But I keep hearing about The Offing so feel I will pick it up soon.
Yes, I can conform that nothing awful happens to Butler in The Offing; you can’t rest assured on that front!
I have had my name down for The Offing at my local library well before All This Still waiting but lovely to read your review which reveals just enough about the book.
Marvellous! I’ll be interested to hear what you think once it finally makes its way to you. Dulcie is a very interesting character – just the right level of eccentricity, if you know what I mean.
I love Cynan Jones’ books, having read three – The Dig, The Long Dry and Cove. I was impressed by each one of them. It’s quite amazing how his prose is so spare with not a single word wasted and yet it can convey so much. I am looking forward to Stillicide, which I hope to buy sometime later this year.
Yes, exactly that. The Dig feels so taught and finely honed while also portraying the depth of Daniel’s loss with such sensitivity. Very impressive indeed…
The Offing sounds completely wonderful. As I was reading your review I was thinking it sounded reminiscent of A Month in the Country – which I adore – so I was interested to see you make that comparison at the end. It sounds a must-read!
I’m really keen to read more by Cynan Jones since I read Cove earlier this year. The Dig does sound a really tough read though, so I’ll have to wait for when I’m feeling robust.
I’ll be interested to see what you think of The Offing if you decide to give it a try. To my mind, it does have a similar kind of feel to the Carr, that sense of a glorious summer alive with possibilities. And there’s another connection too, I think. While Robert was too young to have been sent to war at the time, he’s old enough now to see the depth of the damage it has inflicted on others. So, that idea of recovery of healing and is there, not only for Robert but for Dulcie too. It’s a very affecting book, beautifully judged.
While The Dig has a challenging subject, it was so wonderfully written, I read it only recently and had similar feelings to you. I really must make time to read Benjamin Myers, the Offing sounds so brilliant.
Yes, I completely agree about The Dig. The poetic beauty of the writing, especially in Daniel’s sections of the book, is in stark contrast to the brutality of the badger-baiting — something that makes the latter activity seem all the more horrific…
I enjoyed reading your thoughts (and the comments on) both these books. The Dig brings to mind a book by American writer Jessmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones, which includes dog-fighting (also very hard to read about) and makes some very astute observations about humanity along the way. I like Mme Bibi’s determination that she would have to watch for a “robust” mood to take on that read, perhaps a better way to approach it than to simply set it aside. Otherwise, how can we act, if we’re not inspired–by what we read–to try harder?
Exactly. There’s little point in trying to put aside the fact that these things exist. Badger-baiting, or any other form of cruelty towards animals in the name of ‘sport’/’entertainment’, is abhorrent, and The Dig demonstrates that very clearly. Rather than explicitly condemning or judging the ‘big man’, Jones leaves it up to the reader to draw the own conclusions from the character’s actions – always the best way, I think, to engage the reader’s emotions.
I’m not familiar with the Ward but will take a look. Her name rings a bell, though, probably through another of her books. I think she must have been longlisted for a literary prize at some point as I’ve definitely heard of her before!
I definitely plan to pick up The Offing. I was going to anyway, but the comparison to Month really seals that. It sounds like a departure for Myers – his other books are I think quite violent but this one sounds quite the other way.
I’ve read several Jones and very much rate him. I have The Dig unread on my shelf so I may try to slot it in fairly soon having read this.
This is the only Myers I’ve read so far; but like you, I get the impression that it’s somewhat different from his other books. Beastings comes highly recommended by a number of trusted sources (including Eric at Lonesome Reader and Sarah at A Fiction Habit, if my memory serves me correctly), so that’s got to be worth a look. The Gallows Pole has a lot of supporters too. So, plenty to investigate there…
Ah, that’s great about The Dig! I’ll be very interested to see what you make of it. Which of his others would you recommend to me? (All of them, I suspect.)
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