on 4 February 2003
Fitzgerald's talent lies in the way she can make her characters interact and "live". Although less than two hundred pages Offshore captures the spirit of a whole host of people all very different and unique. From the poverty stricken Nenna and family to the affluent Richard and Laura via the shady nature of Maurice's occupation- Fitzgerald runs the gauntlet of different problems and outlooks. Fitzgerald never directly mentions the meaning, behind these characters' lives, but we understand more, through her writing, about love, loss and social difference.
The cold, mist and mud can all be felt through Fitzgerald's descriptions of the Thames along with the warmth the humanity of the barges' inhabitants. Within the day-to-day workings of the barge dwellers is a story of jealousy and doom which surfaces slowly during the novel and emerges at the climax in an unforgettable end that is truly chilling.
What makes Offshore imperfect is its limited length. Although a novella often has the tautness and direction longer novels lack it can often be at the sacrifice of material that would draw the reader closer into the fictional world. This is the case in Offshore- although all the characters are precisely defined and the story line never deviates away from the path, it seems that we never get close enough to Nenna and co to really feel for them. In a way it seems such vivid and finely crafted characters are wasted.
Nevertheless, Fitzgerald has written an encompassing and bittersweet tale of people living in unordinary circumstances.
on 18 December 2009
I came to reading the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald at almost advanced an age as she came to writing them. They are in the main exquisite vignettes of life written with a delicate charm which give windows into the lives of small communities: a 1950s East Anglian coastal town, BBC wartime radio presenters, a cloistered Cambridge college in Edwardian times and, in Offshore, the houseboat community of Battersea Reach in the 1960s.
In this 1979 Booker Prize winner we find ourselves in the middle of a close, isolated community bobbing around in the tidal Thames: Nenna, a sad young woman estranged from the husband that she loves but who is unable to get him back and her two young children who are growing up barely noticed by their mother; Maurice, a kindly homosexual whose `job' is only whispered about; Richard, an ex-Navy man and his troubled marriage to Laura; Willis, the marine painter who has never been to sea. All are searching for the means to stabilise their current bumpy lives and to give structure to their existence. But as important to the story as the human element is the eclectic mix of floating vessels which are characters in their own right: Dreadnought, Maurice, Grace and Lord Jim. The community, however, is in decline.
Penelope Fitzgerald was one of the finest British novelists in the second half of the twentieth century.
One of Penelope Fitzgerald's finest novels, 'Offshore' tells the story of a group of Londoners living on houseboats on the Chelsea Reach in the 1960s. Nenna, deserted by her useless husband, struggles to bring up her two girls, sturdy young Tilda, always lost in dreams of the Thames in history, and practical, caring Martha. Maurice, a male prostitute, is a good friend to Nenna, but not very good at managing his own affairs. Willis, a former naval artist, struggles to keep his dilapidated houseboat afloat and takes great pleasure in the company of Tilda. And Richard, the only one of this motley crew to have much money, takes enormous aesthetic pleasure in life on the Reach but worries about his upper-middle-class perpetually bored wife Laura, and gradually realizes that he is becoming attracted to Nenna. Fitzgerald brings this community beautifully to life, in all their dramas and interactions. She is wonderful at capturing the world of the child - Martha and Tilda come across as real people, and are not in the least coy or irritating, but also, clearly, see the world in a rather different way to the adults around them. There are some very fine descriptions of Chelsea and Battersea in the 1960s - I particularly liked the scenes when Martha and Tilda go foraging for De Morgan tiles along the riverbank, and where they take Heinrich, a young German boy, down the King's Road to experience 'Swinging London'. Although this is a book with some rather tragic moments in it, it's also very, very funny in places. Fitzgerald has a real knack for dialogue and for observing quirks in people.
If I had any criticism of the novel at all it was that it ended rather abruptly - we never find out what happened after the storm, or why exactly Nenna comes to the decisions that she does in the final chapter. But it's possible that making the book longer could have spoiled its wonderful, compact structure and taut prose style. All in all a real gem of a book, by a wonderful writer.
on 8 February 2008
This book follows the lives of a group of people living on house boats (redundant Dutch Barges) on the Thames at Battersea Reach. There is no real plot - it is more of a snapshot of a point in time of the characters' lives ("Chekovian" says Sue Roberts). Penelope Fitzgerald uses her words VERY carefully and with great economy and with great success. This is a book to read a second time in order to appreciate the subtlety and depth within it. The more we discussed the book the more we found to talk about and just couldn't stop ourselves digging out quotes and lines. Somehow in such a short book there is so much detail - though no colour. The book is a testament to the 1960's - women who can't fold maps, order a drink in a pub, draw corks, fold the times, hammer nails in or strike matches toward themselves. And single parent families are not the norm - they are socially shocking. Would we recommend it? It's not a happy book, it's quite depressing, it's grey, the humour is deepest dark, it's left to you to decide about the people; it's interesting, it's crammed full of great reading. YES almost without exception we agreed that of course we would recommend it.
on 31 May 2010
A story about a small community of outsiders living on decaying barges in the centre of London in the sixties. The sinking of one boat on the incoming tide leads to rearrangements in the relations between them. Just as one is beginning to identify strongly with Richard and Nenna and wish that they would get together the pace of events acceleretes again, currents drift them apart and tensions build up sharply. One can only hope that their ties are stronger than some of the mooring ropes, but the chances dont seem too good.
It is quite a short book,very carefully written. I read it too fast and arrived at the end regretting that I had not savoured it more. Some of the sentences are so exact yet surprising thet the demand a second read even though they are quite short. A very visual book, full of references to paintings as well as exact obesrvations of the behaviour of seagulls, cats, mud and the tides and currents of the Thames.
on 17 April 2001
This book is a tiny little jewel, so tiny, in fact, that some of its facets are obscure.
I truly enjoyed the book, but felt that it was either the last half of a very sad story, or the middle third of a happy one. We are thrust in almost expected to know the characters already. As though Ms. Fitzgerald decided to write a book so short there was no time to develope them. The result is not bad characters, but enigmatic ones.
Additionally, I was disturbed by how sentient Tilda, a six year old, was. She had the childlike attitude appropriate to her age, but prescience of an elderly woman.
Finally, there are passages and implications that are so subtle that the reader is left wondering what actually happened. The back jacket calls a character a male prostitute. The only evidence in the book of this is another character telling Tilda "I could tell you what he does for a living...it's awful." or something similar. I don't necessarily get prostitute from that.
So I feel like I missed the first half of the book, when all this was explained. No regret that I read it though, and I'll read more fitzgerald.
on 23 April 2009
Offshore is set just as it says off shore. The shores in particular aren't some glistening desert island but instead London in the late seventies, which was actually `the now' when the book was released. In a small little community `belonging neither to land nor sea' we meet the various residents of the houseboats of Battersea Reach. There are three main characters in the novel that we follow; Richard a man in a mainly unstable marriage who tries too keep everyone's spirits up and is in some ways `the captain' of the community, Nenna who has randomly bought a boat to live on with her daughters and husband, that latter of which never moved in and Maurice a male prostitute by occupation who is also looking after stolen goods.
How does a book that is only 180 pages and less than 50,000 words manage to encapsulate this society through the day to day and slightly unusual dilemma's I hear you cry? Well that's why I think it won the Man Booker. Though I could actually have read a lot more by the end of the book there isn't much left to add. Just as quickly (and as wonderfully descriptively) as you are thrown into these people's lives you are equally quickly (and wonderfully descriptively) thrown back out. These are snapshots not life stories and I quite like that in novels, especially with such a jumble of characters as this book has.
I happily meandered through their lives (it isn't a fast paced book at all), some mundane and average, some dramatic and emotional like a barge meanders down the Thames taking in all the scenery along the way. It is very much a London book and very much a book about normal real people, both factors I like in any book. I have to say my favourite characters and therefore parts of the book because they were in them were Nenna's children Tilda and Martha. I wanted to join them on the muddy banks of the river finding hidden treasure's and running wild. This is a very economic book, sparse in words but full of vivid imagery and characters. I am so pleased that I had taken up the challenge and found what may not be on of my favourite reads of all time but fine example of simple, pure literary fiction from an author whose work I want to read more of.
The tale of an eclectic mix of people living in close proximity in houseboats on 1960s Battersea Reach.
It's a short (180 page) novel and while it makes for an entertaining read, I didn't feel particularly drawn in by any of the people.
Fitzgerald doesn't describe their emotions but allows us to try to understand them by witnessing their actions and conversations; struggling mother Nenna, who's separated from her husband; efficient and wealthy Richard with his peculiar wife; male prostitute Maurice; artist Willis.
The weakest perhaps - despite being the spunkiest in character- was 6 year old Tilda. Although she's had to grow up fast she just doesn't come across as a small child; she acts quite maturely but never shows any feeling. Although we are told 'Tilda cared nothing for the future, and had as a result a great capacity for happiness' it still doesn't ring true.
As the residents deal with such matters as unhappy marriages and leaky boats, we witness their cameraderie...
The novels have all been read, but the stories continue. This was the last of Ms. Fitzgerald's novels that I had yet to read, and was also the only work of hers than won the prestigious Booker Award. Her other works that were short listed for the award were "The Bookshop", "The Gate Of Angels", and "The Beginning Of Spring". In a writing career that produced 9 works of fiction, to have placed 4 of the 9 as finalists, and to win once is extraordinary. These novels, 3 works of non-fiction, and a collection of short stories, were all published in a period of time of just 15 years in length. It is certainly selfish, but I wish she began sharing her work before she was 69, in the end it does not matter, as the body of work she did produce will keep her in print for many lifetimes to come.
Ms. Fitzgerald wrote short novels; in, "Offshore", she has compressed the story into a space that is at once confining and as colorful as her books. The majority of the book takes place on boats, boats that never move. Boats that would normally form their own tiny area of culture, but this is Ms. Fitzgerald, so as is normally the case conventional measurement has nothing to do with the scope of the story. This time out she seems to test just how far she can compress the space, the number of people and their stories.
This sometimes-floating living location is a raving contradiction in space. Boats and barges meant to be mobile are not, nature can use the tide of the Thames to raise and then settle them down once again, but any motion more abrupt, and the small fragile world is put in peril. A motionless boat is a contradiction in terms. A boat is inanimate, but "it" knows that being chained in place is unnatural, or perhaps all the life that clings to the sides of these vessels are nature's disaffected elements, determined to find a way to undo what should not have been done.
"I never do anything deliberately", is spoken by one character, but is appropriate for several. This group of eclectic eccentrics may possibly be the greatest menagerie the writer ever conjured for one tale.
I cannot begin to pick a favorite from her novels; she is as excellent as she is consistent. I do know this, that unlike her characters, Ms. Fitzgerald chose every word deliberately, built every sentence with exactitude, and delivered works that are absolutely complete.
The Booker Judges deemed this work "flawless", they were correct.
on 3 May 2000
Read this book last night at a sitting and relished it. Exquisite detail, dry irony, gloriously odd convincing characters, a delightfully cruel plot and I am thrilled to know I have the rest of her books still to read. Pleasure held in store like power in a battery.
And it made me homesick for London's grime.