‘Offshore’ by Penelope Fitzgerald

Offshore

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!

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13 thoughts on “‘Offshore’ by Penelope Fitzgerald

  1. I am delighted that you liked it, Kim — I have it out for another read later this fall when winter starts to close in. Those of us who only know London from visits (and don’t know this part of it very well) have to read this book with a copy of A to Z at hand to follow the kids (and others) when they actually get on shore. I agree that the youth dialogue isn’t what I would call realistic — I was more than willing to grant Fitzgerald that licence since everything else about the book was so good.
    Next up in my Fitzgerald re-reads will be The Bookshop, which I think more people favor than even this one. Now that you have become acquainted with this very special author, save it for some time when you want a guaranteed good read that brings a smile to your face, while at the same time putting an ache in your heart. It does both.

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  2. I have this one on my Booker Prize TBR, Kim, and now I’m looking forward to it. I belong to The Complete Booker group and am blogging the ones I’ve read (more than 20 now, see http://tinyurl.com/23whdtm). I’m doing this by reading the recent ones I’ve somehow missed (I still haven’t read The Gathering!) but also working through the early ones in date order, so I’m not far off getting to Offshore.

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  3. Eight years ago I read this with joy. Then Everyman’s Library came out with a 2 volume set (six novels including Offshore). I read them all within a month and since have read them again.
    The novels range in quality from” highly recommended’ to “I can’t believe you haven’t read this”.
    Also to be read is the group biography about here brothers, the Knox brothers. I am glad your friend recommended her and hope this will be the be the beginning. (By e way, my favorite is The Book Shop.)

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  4. I’m relatively familiar with this neck of the woods – the Chelsea side and not the Battersea side – and it’s funny to think this is another area of London that is now incredibly exclusive. A house on Cheyne Walk, for instance, would be literally millions and millions of £££! Battersea Reach itself is now an upmarket enclave of apartment buildings — and not very attractive ones at that. The houseboats, however, are still there. One day, when I’ve got my wits about me, I’ll head out on the bike and do a photo essay.
    I will have to explore more of her work, and will be keen to read The Bookshop, because what bookish person couldn’t resist a title like that?

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  5. I didn’t know about the Complete Booker Group – what a fascinating exercise. I think I’ve read 14 or 15 winners, my favourite being Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger.

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  6. Thanks for the tip-off about the Everyman’s Library volumes, they sound like a very worthwhile purchase.
    And I’ve just looked up “The Knox Brothers” on Amazon – what a fascinating family she seems to have come from. Might explain why there are Catholic characters in Offshore, as you rarely get Catholics mentioned in English/British novels.

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  7. I have only recently been introduced to Fitzgerald as well – she is an absolute treasure trove and I have already given away two copies of The Blue Flower. Simply astonishing stuff. Her book of criticism and occasional writings, A House Of Air, is lovely too.

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  8. I can see my wishlist getting even longer now, Genevieve. Am a sucker for books on criticism etc so I’ll have to check out A House of Air (great title)…

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  9. I look back and find that I read this over 20 years ago and still treasure this and many others by Fitzgerald. Thanks for reminding me, as I may now reread.
    My favourite Fitzgerald is The Blue Flower, again a concise novel with believable characters, but creating an entirely different world – late eighteenth century Germany – with a love story about the author who later became better know as Novalis. It sounds disconnected from contemporary life, but it works well.
    As you would expect having read Offshore, it is also beautifully written.

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  10. I read this last year (I think) and really, really enjoyed it. I was expecting it to be hard work, not quite sure why was just one of those pre-reading assumptions you sometimes make — well I do. I laughed out loud too and was really intrigued by the idea of people living on the Thames, which of course they still do.
    I have never been quite sure where to go next with Penelope though. I always like the idea of ‘The Bookshop’ just because of the title.

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  11. “There is nothing absolutely nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Having just finished _The Wind in the Willows_ with the boys, I think this one sounds like the perfect boat-y book with which to end the summer. Thanks for the tip.

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  12. Great review, Kim. I loved the dry humour in this novel as well. Fitzgerald’s (adult) characters are wonderful aren’t they? I sort of love them all the more for their various quirks and flaws. Her children are rather strange though, almost like miniature adults.

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