What are men like when women aren’t around? Jane Austen couldn’t imagine, so her novels contain almost no private male conversations.

Tabitha Lasley is more intrepid. A sometime journalist, she spends six months in Aberdeen, interviewing the men who work on offshore oil rigs. Thus she hunts down that old-school masculinity, which we are always told is under threat yet which somehow keeps bubbling beneath the surface.

Lasley interviews 103 workers, although she is preoccupied with the first one, Caden — not his real name — with whom she has an affair. The result is acidic, addictive reporting with a fictional veneer.

Sea State’s writing alone is worth the admission price. Lasley summons up Aberdeen — a city made of “Louisiana avarice and Protestant thrift”, “a desert caliphate” where women were “rarely seen out alone after dark” and “where all the men wore gloves”.

Her interviewees, many of them incomers from Teesside, testify to masculinity in flux. On the rigs, feuds simmer because there are no fights to resolve them, while the rise of mobile phones has “atomised” community offshore.

Indeed, technology exposes these hardy men’s reliance on women: Caden pursues Lasley with calls and text messages; another worker reputedly headbutts his iPad because he can’t stop his girlfriend going for a night out.

With each other, the men don’t want physical confrontation, but don’t have a developed alternative. “Girls are taught to respond to the subtlest social cues . . . boys to develop a benign tone-deafness for the very same signals,” Lasley writes. To secure her interviews, she pushes herself to become a “hybrid” — with the “unthreatening looks” of a woman and the “impervious core” of a man.

Despite her mission, Lasley cannot show men without women around: either she is there, or they are unreliably recounting events that happened when she wasn’t. Moreover, what often divides her from her interviewees is not so much gender as class and education.

The supposedly tough life of the oil industry seems to have infantilised these men. Employers look after them on the rig, so the men expect their women to do the same off it. An even bigger constraint is that they are convinced that marriage is not their choice, that non-sexual friendship with women is impossible, and that they can’t let Lasley buy a round of drinks. As her relationship with Caden continues, Lasley also reflects on men’s “impossible, Escheresque” desire for women’s bodies that defy the ageing process.

Lasley never refers to toxic masculinity — a phrase now as ubiquitous and homogenising as tomato ketchup. Guvna B is not so reticent. A Mobo-winning grime and rap artist whose real name is Isaac Borquaye, he struggled to come to terms with the sudden death of his father in 2017.

In Unspoken, he explores his inability to articulate his feelings. He attributes this largely to his parents — hard-working immigrants from Ghana who “were too busy trying to make the rent” to discuss emotions — and to the east London estate where he grew up.

Unspoken can be a cloying read (is it ever acceptable to quote one’s own Instagram posts in a book?). But it correctly identifies how men are still catching up on the basics of emotional sharing: “nearly half of all communication is made up of listening”, Guvna B notes, wide-eyed.

One notable aspect of western masculinity is that there are no feats of endurance that mark the transition to manhood. That may be for the best. Thando Mgqolozana’s novel A Man Who Is Not A Man is a raw and powerful tale of circumcision in rural South Africa. (Originally published in 2009 by a university press in South Africa, it has now been reissued in the UK and US.)

Nelson Mandela saw circumcision as having “an important psychological effect”. But for Mgqolozana’s narrator, Chris, the ritual goes badly wrong. The gangrene is life-threatening, but even more serious is the feeling that he has not fully become a man.

The tradition has a hold on Chris, despite the fact that his father and grandfather — who have been through it — are not exactly adverts for masculinity or decency. He is inclined to believe that old-school masculinity could be rescued, if only the traditions just were done right.

All three books underline that flawed masculinity is not built by men alone. Guvna B’s dominant mother is at the root of his behaviour; Chris’s girlfriend is excited by his impending circumcision.

In Sea State, there is an inevitable parallel between the Aberdeen rigs and old-school masculinity. Both served a purpose in their time, despite their inherent dangers; now their ill effects on society are clear and they seem destined to collapse gracelessly.

What is the clean replacement — masculinity’s version of an offshore wind farm? Guvna B aspires to be an expressive, God-fearing role model. Chris, with his deformed penis, has a different answer in the preface to his story: “My self-image is no longer dependent on what my society thinks of me but what I think of it.”

You cannot read any of these three books and imagine that male identity will not change dramatically in the next decade. Perhaps men will start to refer less to their duties as men, and more to their duties as partners, friends, neighbours, engineers, songwriters. They may even act roughly the same when women aren’t around as they do when they are.

Sea State, by Tabitha Lasley, Fourth Estate, RRP£14.99, 240 pages

Unspoken: Toxic Masculinity and I How I Faced the Man Within the Man, by Guvna B, Harper Inspire, RRP£14.99, 288 pages

A Man Who Is Not A Man, by Thando Mgqolozana, Cassava Republic Press, RRP£11.99/$15.95, 256 pages

Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer

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