CORONAVIRUS reading time.
Two books that are very different from each other but both easy and good reads.
THE OFFING, by a young writer, Benjamin Myers, was published in 2019. It has some ecstatic reviews.
Set in England just after the end of World War II, Robert Appleyard decides to take a year off after finishing school, and explore the world outside of the Durham Colliery, in which his family have been miners from generation to generation. Is he destined to mine the mines? His family expect so. He is not so sure. This is the vague fuel to the quest he engages in.
He wanders by foot into the countryside, following nature and its flora and fauna, taking on light tasks and camping on properties that he is passing through. It is a journey that connects him to the wonder of the natural world - a world he had not ever before regarded.
Robert finds himself, stumbling onto a bushy hillside with a ramshackle cottage and sheds overgrown by nature, not far from the seaside. There he meets Dulcie Piper, an older bohemian eccentric with her German Shepherd, Butler. She without inhibition invites him to food and alcohol and literature, to poetry. To an ideal of Europe. His world is broken open to a scale, a potential, he had never known before.
The local fishing village have adopted Dulcies' eccentricities and take a care for her surviving, and Robert taking himself away to continue his journey is guided back to Dulcie's with a seafood gift from one of the local fishermen. Robert, then, finds himself further drawn into her influence by taking on small jobs to organise the garden and to restore a shed that reveals itself as a once studio for a foreign artist - a poet, Romy Landau - a companion of Dulcie's who has died.
This is a coming-of-age story for Robert and a resurrection of hope and faith for Dulcie as both participate in the reveal of a lost and unpublished collection of poems by Romy, called The Offing, that had been abandoned in the studio/shed.
Offing is defined as "the distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge". In that space there is possibility and growth.
This short novel is written in descriptive language that sparkles with the reflective light of sparkling jewellery. The language is strangely old fashioned in its vividness and charm but has a disarming energy that wraps about you with a warmth of familiarity and comfort. I found myself propelled into the reading of the book with a sense of delightful ease. The descriptives are overrich yet completely entrancing. Given to me by my friend, a bookseller, it was a present for which I am so grateful.
The grief of a nation flowing out of the destruction of a World War, a land in scattered decay, and a woman devastated by a broken heart are healed by the grafting of a miner's son to a blossoming into a poet - a novelist - into the becoming of joyous simplicity of experiential depths. Robert Appleyard, now an older man, is the voice of this narrative as he recalls the year that changed his life - this is his novel of memory, when his life was changed. THE OFFING may change your life, too. And, if not, you will, at least, have had a very pleasant read.
Okay. Let me continue my fandom for the Abir Mukherjee crime detective series which I have written about in an earlier blog post.
SMOKE AND ASHES is the third book in the Sam Wyndham/'Surrender-Not' saga. All three books are set in Calcutta in the 1920's. These two men are members of the British Police Force and are investigators of crime. The books have followed these two men and a collection of other characters in their natural growth, personally and politically, during this highly volatile time in India during the rise of the Gandhi driven Independence movement enveloped in the corrupt collapse of the British Raj.
Wyndham, a cynical survivor of the trenches of World War I, and the death of his young wife, after a short stint with Scotland Yard, is seconded to Calcutta under the aegis of Lord Taggart. He has been commissioned there for some two and a half years. Opium is readily available in this city and he has become addicted intensely - taking risks that could ruin his career.
SMOKE AND ASHES, is set in December, 1921. Wyndham's addiction to opium has become quite intense and this book opens in an opium den where he is woken mid-way through an indulgence as there is a vice squad police raid going on. To be found there will be the end of his career. He takes flight and finishes on a roof where he stumbles over a corpse with its eyes gouged and a ritual stabbing in the chest.
He is not able to report the crime for fear of exposure but when another body is found with similar wounds he becomes alert and is sent with his native detective companion, Surrender-not', to investigate and solve.
These crimes spiral and a pattern of murder becomes revealed in a gradual exposure of a secret British research biological experiment investigating the effect of chemical weapons, illegally using Indian troops as their human 'guinea-pigs'. These new crimes may be revenge actions.
What is thrilling is that as this investigation climaxes, it is set against the non-violent, non-cooperation protests held in Calcutta at this time led by Gandhi deputies: Chitta Rajari Das, Subhash Bose, and Das' wife Basanti Devi, climaxing on the day of the Royal Tour of Prince Edward, later King Edward VIII's, arrival in Calcutta.
As usual, Mukherjee handles the storytelling with a deft speed and a comfortably sensed researched dramatic integration, if not with complete historic accuracy. It gallops along in its twists and turns. Add the development of the individual characters' dilemmas, especially that of Wyndham and his habit, and the native sergeant 'Surrender-not' who has a duty to the Raj as a member of its police force but is also a member of a family highly engaged in the Gandhi confrontation with the white culture. He is torn in his ambitions and loyalties.
SMOKE AND ASHES is the best of the three books, so far, in its drafting and exciting juxtaposed content. The book does stand on its own but is more interesting because the chronological order created is especially arresting.