Fiction – paperback; 4th Estate; 181 pages; 2009.
Don’t let the slim size of this book fool you. Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, which won the Booker Prize upon publication in 1979, packs so much into its economic prose that I often had to re-read entire pages because I’d overlooked an important detail crucial to the rest of the storyline.
The book, which is set in 1961, tells the story of a motley crew of residents in a houseboat community on the Thames. Here, in the shadow of Battersea Power Station (which was still operational then, and not the derelict grade II* listed building we now know — and love), we meet a handful of core characters: Richard, a former navy man, who loves living on the river and keeps everything shipshape; Maurice, the male prostitute, who stores stolen goods for his mysterious friend Harry; Willis, a 65-year-old maritime artist, who is desperate to sell his leaking boat so he can live on dry land; and Nenna, an expat Canadian, with two young girls, whose husband refuses to live on a boat.
While there’s not much plot (Fitzgerald’s strength is in characterisation and scene-setting), the story mainly hinges on Nenna’s attempt to get her husband back, because she needs someone to fold maps for her and “turn over the Times so the pages lie flat”.
That dry humour runs throughout the novel, which is rich with comic moments. Even before you’ve got a handle on the story, Fitzgerald is making you laugh out loud. I had my first chuckle on page 3 when we discover that Maurice changed the name of his boat when he first moved to the Reach, because he realised that residents were addressed by the name of their craft — for example, Lord Jim, Rochester, Dunkirk — “and that he himself would accordingly be known as Dondeschiepolschuygen IV, which was described in gilt lettering on his bows”.
A few more pages into the novel and there are more chuckles to be had when you discover that the postman no longer delivers mail to the Reach
…after he had fallen twice from Maurice’s ill-secured gangplank, the whole morning’s mail soaked away in the great river’s load of rubbish, the GPO, with every reason on its side, had notified the Reach that they could no longer undertake deliveries. They acknowledged that Mr Blake, from ‘Lord Jim, had rescued their employee on both occasions and they wished to record their thanks for this. The letters, since this, had had to be collected from the boatyard office, and Laura [Richard’s wife] felt that this made it not much better than living abroad.
The book also provides a real insight into what it must be like to live in that kind of “netherworld”, not quite belonging to either land or water, and consequently viewed by other members of society as being “odd” or impoverished.
The barge-dwellers would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate amounts of money.
In one telling scene, Richard’s friend, Pinkie (so-called because of his love of pink gin), a real estate agent, asks him when he’s going to “give up this nonsense about living in the middle of the Thames?” When Richard claims he isn’t selling the boat and that he didn’t buy it as an investment, the response is: “Then what in the name of Christ did you buy her for?”
Nenna’s husband feels similarly. Despite returning from a two-year stint working abroad with his tail between his legs (the resultant riches he had hoped to acquire never appeared), he cannot bring himself to live on the boat that Nenna bought in his absence. Why? Because he feels it is beneath him, and yet he is happy to lodge in a North London terrace house with a colleague and his mother!
Of course, a book set on the Thames could not help but make the river a central character, and Fitzgerald writes of it so evocatively that you can see the water swirling, feel the tides rising and falling, hear the gulls squawking overhead.
This is a dear, gem of a book, comic and melancholy by turn, and peopled with intriguing characters. My only quibble is the falsity of the children’s dialogue (too adult, too contrived, but possibly 12-year-olds spoke like that in the early Sixties?) and the all-too abrupt ending. But as my first experience reading Penelope Fitzgerald I very much enjoyed it — thanks to KevinfromCanada for the recommendation!