(The following was commissioned and accepted by the Literary Review for the August 2019 issue, however was not published.)
Robert Appleyard is an unusual protagonist for a contemporary novel. The sixteen-year-old son of a miner, he treks across the Yorkshire moors to Robin Hood’s Bay one sunny summer not long after the Second World War. Benjamin Myers’ book, ‘The Offing’ is in one way a straightforward rags-to riches-story set in rural Yorkshire. But it’s a story too about the relationship between the unnamed narrator and the mysterious Dulcie, a celebration of literature, conversation, and la dolce vita.
As our narrator roams picturesquely over the Yorkshire hills, he wanders into the realm of all that is shorthand for sophistication: wine, poetry, winding conversation. Meeting Dulcie, a woman who speaks in sphynx-like twists of curiosity, he is nourished body and mind by her supply of apples and aphorisms. Over a period of coming and going to the house, he reads and drinks long into the night with her, slowly and self-consciously developing into an homme de lettres, complete with glass in hand and sack of adjectives to boot.
Yet this is not a comfortable world: even in the rose-scented, lyrical sunsets, the reader is to be surprised by the slow uncovering of Dulcie’s past. At the heart of this tale, for all its delight and play, is a grief that has been suppressed by decades.
Questions rise and remain unanswered: did she really once flit amongst literary circles? Was she in love with her shadowy poet friend? Or is this narrative, like her beloved books, another tale to mesmerise her new pupil? As the unlikely friendship develops, so does this former life unfold.
This plot is located in the middle of a social mobility tale: ‘it (poetry) had just been one more way of keeping the working men and women in their place’. It’s literature and wine on one side of the divide, poverty and ignorance on the other. ‘Dimwit debutante spawn of diplomats, aristocrats, old-money dilettantes and those jug-eared, buck-toothed royals who flounce about flaunting their family names as flagrantly as their crests and signet rings’ are set in contrast to the miners and working-class Yorkshiremen who express themselves through fighting (‘the only language they understand’).
Grand statements are delivered with ambitious flourish. Dulcie’s manner of speaking delights in ambitious use of language: a fox is described with ‘The acrid funk of a vulpine interloper’, drunkenness rendered ‘despite the nullifying effect of the drink’ Description is at its best when the text delicately evokes the sensory landscape of the post-war North: ‘the stale lingering stink of tobacco smoke, hair oil, decaying English teeth and damp woollen coats’.
Appleyard notes that he once viewed poetry as ‘a way of complicating the simple’, and at times Myers could benefit from remembering this, as the style can disrupt the reader’s engagement with the plot: it attempts to soar before it can fly.). Good food is here equated to good literature: both nourish. But just as the simplest food of the novel is the tastiest, so too could the prose use some stripping of ingredients, to greater enhance the central relationship and intrigue.