Over the past decade, Calder Valley-based author Ben Myers has quietly become one of the most impressive and versatile writers of his generation.
His 2017 novel The Gallows Pole about the real-life Cragg Vale coiners, an 18th century counterfeiting gang operating in the West Riding of Yorkshire, was a huge hit, winning both the Roger Deakin Award and the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. Previous novels were equally lauded – Beastings won the Portico Prize for Literature, Pig Iron won the Gordon Burn Prize and Richard was a Sunday Times book of the year. All this acclaim is thoroughly deserved. His fiction is bold, muscular and lyrical and his literary response to landscape is powerful and inspiring.
His non-fiction work also reflects this profound engagement with nature – last year’s Under the Rock: The Poetry of a Place was a personal reflection on the rugged beauty of Calderdale where Myers has lived since 2008.
His latest book, The Offing, published by Bloomsbury this month, is set, like all his novels, in the North of England, but that aside it is something of a departure in terms of tone and subject matter. The narrative takes place in Robin Hood’s Bay just after the Second World War and tells the story of the unusual friendship between Dulcie, a bohemian woman in her sixties and Robert, a 16-year-old from a Durham mining village.
“It’s a bit different to anything else I have written or published previously,” says Myers. “I started writing it about four years ago purely as a kind of holiday for me, a break from the sort of stories that I usually write which are often quite dark and visceral and masculine. I kept getting referred to as a ‘Northern noir’ writer which is fair enough but I wanted to write something a bit sunnier. I didn’t really write it with the intention of publishing it.”
However, during the course of the period he was working on the book, global events took, shall we say, a rather strange turn and that fed into his creative process. “While I was writing, the whole world seemed to be having a nervous breakdown and I decided I really wanted to write something with a positive feel to it.” He has certainly succeeded in that. The Offing is a gentle celebration of human connection, kindness and generosity and the importance of savouring the simple pleasures in life. Dulcie and Robert spend their time talking, reading, eating, swimming and drinking wine.
“It was my intention to pay tribute to those small moments of joy that can come out of very ordinary shared experiences,” says Myers. “And the wider message of the book is about trying to remember that the gaps between people are not necessarily that big.” This is borne out in the storytelling with two protagonists who are separated by age, gender and class, yet still manage to forge an important, lasting and mutually beneficial bond.
“Robert and Dulcie both give something to and gain something from their relationship,” says Myers. “Even people who appear to be very different might actually be quite similar in many ways – and that is really one of the main points of the book.”
The Offing by Benjamin Myers
published by bloomsbury, £16.99
Yvette Huddleston 4/5
While division and entrenched positioning seem to be the order of the day, it is so refreshing to read a book that offers an elegant, gentle escape from all the madness.
Ben Myers’ beautiful, thoughtful and moving novel set over one summer shortly after the Second World War explores the unlikely friendship that develops between Dulcie, an older eccentric woman who lives in a rundown old cottage overlooking the sea at Robin Hood’s Bay and Robert, the 16-year-old son of a miner who has left his Durham village in search of adventure. As the pair bond over lobster dinners, white wine and the exquisite poetry written by Dulcie’s fragile former lover, each learns from the other and what might seem like an unbridgeable gap between them – in terms of age, class and gender – disappears. This is partly to do with Dulcie’s combination of bohemian sensibility and no-nonsense practicality, an approach that cuts through stuffy convention and societal expectations. For Robert this is liberating and what Dulcie teaches him in their short time together is that generosity of spirit, human connection, intellectual curiosity and taking pleasure in simple, everyday joys can enrich a life beyond measure. Both their futures are infinitely better for having found each other.
It is a powerful message and it’s exactly the kind of book that the world needs right now.