Caught by the River

The Offing

Cally Callomon | 25th August 2019

Cally Callomon reviews ‘The Offing’ – the latest novel from the astoundingly prolific Benjamin Myers, and our Book of the Month for August.

The Pan Book Of Horror Clichés states that all good things come in threes, fewer, perhaps, less tripartite than Bowie’s trio: Low, Heroes and Lodger, each album bouncing off the other, but each album standing up like the legs of a tri-pod. 

Ben Myers has broken the routine with this, his follow-up-proper to The Gallows Pole (skidding past the excellent Under The Rock of 2018 as that was more diversion than it was album-proper). The trio in question, here – and I’m taking liberties all round – are three books by three authors all published in close proximity but all seeming to swim around in the same pool on England’s east coast. It must be something in the water. Melissa Harrison’s All Among The Barley and Sarah Ridgard’s Seldom Seen seem to hold hands with this latest gem from Myers. In time some publicist will invent a new school of rural brutality (Brural ©); for now the zeitgeist feeds us hungry readers a diet of unsentimental landscape literature that manages to make us stop and think.

Gone is the necessary overt graphic brutality found by his previous: the Pig Iron and Gallows Pole books, here the brutality lurks as an undercurrent of expectation, the cynic in me hunched shoulders waiting for a blow that came in ways unforeseen yet welcome and satisfying.

Just as XTC’s Andy Partridge maintains that no new board game is actually ‘new’ (and there’s a man who should know) then one may echo the same about books. Gratifyingly, The Offing follows in a grand tradition of boys walking out on a summer’s day and their encounters along the way. Even though the book is set in some indistinct past the story remains strikingly modern (and any more detail on this may spoil the book for you). Set after a ‘war’ of which Myers states:

There had been a war and though the conflict was over it still raged on in those men and women who bought it home with them. It was kept alive in their eyes or hung heavy about their shoulders like a blood-soaked cloak. It blossomed, too, in their hearts, a black flower that had taken root there, never to be eradicated. The seeds were too toxic, too deeply sown, for the memories to be anything but perennially poisonous…For no one ever really wins a war: some just lose a little less than others.

This lack of finality runs through the book. The Offing itself is ‘that distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge’ and Myers is happy to enjoy the complex chaos and order found in nature – us humans come too of course. The book is set in the summer season: so no better time to buy and read; only the sand on the beach may never feel the same, the landscape gently altered, the taste of food different.

Suffice to say Myers is adept at understanding how we currently uncover the once overlooked and find long-ignored gems, be they poets or authors, and such a thing does manifest itself in the publications by Persephone, Little Toller and their like. Myers doesn’t wait for such a reflection, he creates a past and rediscovers it in the same story, carrying us along at a walking pace, all the while waiting for what our American apartment-living friends may describe as ‘the other shoe to drop’.

Should this ever make the big screen we’ll applaud another Hope And Glory another Enduring Love, where we are left to decide what-happens-next for ourselves. Both quizzical and deeply satisfying at the same time. Already earmarked as a BBC Book At Bedtime, this may serve to keep many awake at night. Myers’ prose and poetry makes a celebration of the ‘new Ondaatje’ a far less preposterous mantle than it may seem.


The Offing is out now, published by Bloomsbury, and is available to buy here, priced £16.99.