Benjamin Myers novel, The Offing, is another one of my favourite books from the past year. It was also something of a serendipidous discovery as I originally read a review of the book on the website of the Outdoor Swimming Society. Although this present book wasnt quite what I had expected from the review, I nevertheless found it to be both thoughtful and poetic.
The story is set in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and follows Robert as he sets out from a coal mining village in County Durham to explore the countryside of Northern England. When he reaches Robin Hoods bay, he meets the eccentric Dulcie. Intending to stay a few nights, he ultimately stays the entire summer, over which time she introduces him to the delights of poetry.
This is first and foremost a book about the countryside and an encomium to the power of poetry. However, as enjoyable as this makes the book, Myers has also written a poignant and novel which is as relevant in our present troubled times, as in the immediate aftermath of the war. Initially, given the endorsement from the Outdoor Swimming Society, I was supposing that swimming in the sea would feature more highly. While Robert does do so, this is very rarely commented upon, which together with Dulcies comments there are the tides to consider, and ..., presents outdoor swimming as a rather furtive activity. Perhaps it is, and perhaps thats part of the attraction, but it seems an unlikely message for the OSS.
Wild swimming, however, is something which I could almost imagine Dulcie trying. Her character was one of the things which I really enjoyed about this book, she truly represented English eccentricity at its very best. Of course, while Dulcies individuality may have been tolerated, its clear that she is not representative of her local community, witness her comments about some of the inbred locals. While there was, perhaps, more scope for individuality, society as a whole still had its preoccupations. This much is apparent from Roberts narrow education, which like our schools today, seems more concerned with the skills necessary for the workplace than with equipping children with the tools to form their own opinions, and to lead fulfilled lives. I hazard that Robert learned as much from that one summer with Dulcie as he did from several years of schooling. He certainly learnt an entirely different way of looking at things, and opened up to a sense of possibility.
One of those possibilities was going to university, and Dulcies impassioned speech on p. 252 looked forward to a time when that option should be open to all those with an enquiring mind. For a time, the then new universities, the so called redbricks may have achieved that. Now, of course, commercialism has taken over and undergraduate teaching is big business. At the time, Robert thought that university wasnt for people like him. In the 1990s, I was a student at Durham University and I equally wonder whether it was for people like me.
One way that Dulcie was able to communicate this was through her love of poetry. This, however, is a quality shared by all good literature: not just poetry, but plays and prose too. For this reason it seems apt that the writing in this book seems so lyrical and poetic. Of course, one criticism sometimes levelled at poetry is that the language is too ornate, to the point of obscuring the authors message. I accept that this is sometimes a valid point, and not only must poetry be read in a different way, it is also an acquired taste. For that reason the writing in this book may not be to everyones taste. It is also said that it is a style which the young Robert would have been unlikely to use. Again, fair point, but it is being written retrospectively by the older Robert who had already given up the coveted position in the coal mines office.
Another theme in the book is that of boundaries; another poignant one in a time when our politicians increasingly favour hard borders. Perhaps it is therefore appropriate that Dulcie should live in Robin Hoods Bay, a former smuggling village; a reminder that borders have leaked since time in memorial! The books title too, recalls that imaginary place where the sky and the sea meet, a place which is in a continual state of flux. Just before writing this review, I learnt that this book has become a bestseller in Germany where it has been published in translation as Offene See. While some of the English must have been a challenge to translate, the German title, literally open sea, does a good job of conveying the spirit of the novel: not open sea as in well away from land, but open as in without boundaries, or free. This is just as it should be, and a sentiment shared by sea swimmers. Perhaps, after all, the endorsement by the OSS is not so surprising.
In short I found this book to be both poetic and thoughtful. Many of the themes of the book are well chosen and resonate as much now as they might have done after the war. Like poetry, the book may not be to everyones taste, yet I hope that everyone will find something to enjoy: the depiction of the countryside, Roberts first taste of freedom, the delightful characters, or Dulcies love of poetry. While much has changed since Roberts time, we still face an uncertain future. For this reason I believe this is very much a book for our times, with just a nod, at least in spirit, to wild swimmers!