The Offing

Benjamin Myers

Bloomsbury, £16.99

Benjamin Myers’ mainstream success has been a long time coming. In earlier books like Beastings and Pig Iron, the stark, denuded north-eastern landscapes and bleak post-industrial Durham edgelands were settings for stories of uncompromising savagery and violence, told in a prose style that mixed lush poetry with the jagged rhythms of everyday speech.

The Gallows Pole – a flinty and brutal exploration of rural counterfeiters in 18th century Yorkshire – won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and has seen Myers move from small indie press Bluemoose to Bloomsbury for his eighth novel, The Offing.

The book follows the recollections of Robert Appleyard from old age, as he casts his mind back to the summer after the end of Second World War, aged 16 and on the cusp of a life of drudgery down the pit in his County Durham mining village. Postponing the inevitable, he decides to take a walking holiday in the countryside and heads south: "Only when alone in the wild had I ever come remotely close to beginning to know my true self" he thinks, heading out into an "unfurling wonderland, a swirling season in bloom". Taking odd jobs, sleeping out in the open, he eventually finds himself heading towards Robin Hood’s Bay. There, in a cottage near the sea, he meets Dulcie Piper, an acerbic and free-spirited older woman who, despite her air of carefree self-sufficiency, seems burdened by a secret she won’t confess.

As Robert stays with her a few weeks, helping to clear the overgrown tangle of the meadow outside her cottage, he is introduced to a world utterly at odds with the grey austerity of post-war Britain.

From her ready supply of black market food and wine to her love of music and literature, Dulcie’s unconventional, bohemian ways soon reveal the possibilities of a world beyond the confines of his home town and a life down the pit. But when Robert discovers a dilapidated artist’s studio at the bottom of the meadow, along with an old manuscript of poems, he slowly uncovers the secret of Dulcie’s hidden sorrow – her tragic relationship with Romy Landau, a modernist poet who had fled Hitler’s Germany before the war.

Although still rooted in the landscapes of Durham and Yorkshire, in both style and substance The Offing is surprisingly conventional when compared to Myers’ earlier works. It’s not that the author has mellowed in any way, and there’s still plenty of rage at the enforced degradations of poverty and class, but the story of a young man inducted into the mysteries of Art and Life ("Let poetry and music and wine and romance guide the way", Dulcie says) is nothing we haven’t seen before, and for all her iconoclastic bluster, her cocktails and cigars and friendships with Noel Coward and DH Lawrence, Dulcie seems more of a stock character than the force of nature she’s obviously intended to be.

Myers’ eye for the natural world is as good as ever, and his receptive sympathy with animal life produces some wonderful images: the badger Robert sees in the night, for example, gnawing at a worm "as if it were a child chewing on a cherry bootlace plucked from a penny-poke of pick-and-mix’", or "the deep green and magnesium" of the fish Robert takes up to Dulcie’s cottage, "their bellies the colour of molten lead." At other times, though, Myers finds it difficult to rein himself in, and like the churning waves that draw Robert to the coast, his prose occasionally drags, fumbles and overspills: "the sun threw copper shards of shrapnel shapes across the silk sheet of the sea" is more tongue-twister than prose poetry, and this lush over-writing sometimes mars what is otherwise a keenly observed and heartfelt appreciation of landscape and place.

The Offing is a perfectly good novel and succeeds in what it sets out to achieve. It will hopefully win Myers plenty of new readers. But it feels like a safe step for a writer who has never been afraid of taking risks.