Offshore

If the tide was low the two of them watched the gleams on the foreshore, at half tide they heard the water chuckling, waiting to lift the boats, at flood tide they saw the river as a powerful god, bearded with the white foam of detergents, calling home the twenty-seven lost rivers of London, sighing as the night declined.

Penelope Fitzgerald actually won the Booker prize in 1979 for Offshore, but it doesn’t seem to get as much buzz as some of her other novels like The Bookshop or The Blue Flower. The book has an autobiographical tie in that Fitzgerald lived on Battersea Reach herself for a period in the 1960s.

Offshore describes life in a down-and-out houseboat community on the Thames. No one can quite understand why the inhabitants put up with the inaccessibility and inconveniences–not their friends, not their families, not their spouses, not even they themselves. Richard, with his naval background and meticulous personality, is the unofficial leader. Kindly Maurice works the night trade, while Willis paints detailed ships. And Nenna, whose husband refuses to join her on board, ends up being taken care of by her older daughter while the other runs amok like a river rat. With nothing to turn to but each other, together they all struggle against the elements and whatever else life throws at them.

I’m not sure I can quite describe why I like Fitzgerald’s work. She’s a quiet writer, who seems to focus on subtlety and detail. For example, Nenna articulates her dependence on a male presence by the fact that the is unable to fold a map right, while her husband shows distance by not knowing how to give gifts. On the grand scale not a lot happens in the book, no melodrama unless it’s understated, but the little things that do occur are actually meaningful to the characters. It seems true to life somehow.

As has been my experience with her other work it took me a little while to get into it and adjust to the setting and the situations. By the end of the book however, only 141 pages later, I felt attached to all the characters and sorry to see them go; it really felt like a leave-taking, though a bit ambiguous. I wanted to know what happened in the next chapter of their lives, to see how they continued to cope. There is a sense of acquiescence to fate, but not surrender. Overall, I think this Sunday Times quote on the back cover summed up the tone: “It has a sense of battles barely lost, of happiness at any rate brushed by the fingers as it passes by.”

Offshore is my book for the Alive or Not award winner category of the 9 for ’09 Challenge. Fitzgerald passed away in 2000 at the age of 83.

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Published in: on October 20, 2009 at 10:55 am  Comments (5)  
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for being part of the 9 for ’09 Challenge.

    Is this novel set in the 20th Century? What is the Night Trade, that Maurice does?

    Do they live near London?

    I must add this to my TBR list. Thanks.

  2. Isabel–I’m very much enjoying the challenge so far! The book is set in the 1960s, and I believe the houseboats are on the Thames. Maurice is actually involved in prostitution, but it’s not mentioned too much (I just try to avoid odd hits from Google). Offshore isn’t actually thought to be her best, but it’s a short read and representative of her style.

  3. […] that, though occasionally choppy, has effective climaxes and resolutions (in comparison to, say, Offshore, which has great characters, including children, but little plot). I think Gideon’s mother […]

  4. […] or Not: Offshore, by Penelope […]

  5. […] Offshore, the novel draws on her personal experiences. Ms. Fitzgerald worked at the BBC herself during the […]


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