Offshore Paperback – 11 Sep 1980
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|Paperback, 11 Sep 1980||
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Offshore possesses perfect, very odd pitch. In just over 130 pages of the wittiest and most melancholy prose, Penelope Fitzgerald illuminates the lives of "creatures neither of firm land nor water"--a group of barge-dwellers in London's Battersea Reach, circa 1961. One man, a marine artist whose commissions have dropped off since the war, is attempting to sell his decrepit craft before it sinks. Another, a dutiful businessman with a bored, mutinous wife, knows he should be landlocked but remains drawn to the muddy Thames. A third, Maurice, a male prostitute, doesn't even protest when a criminal acquaintance begins to use his barge as a depot for stolen goods: "The dangerous and the ridiculous were necessary to his life, otherwise tenderness would overwhelm him."
At the centre of the novel--winner of the 1979 Booker Prize--are Nenna and her truant six- and 11-year-old daughters. The younger sibling "cared nothing for the future, and had, as a result, a great capacity for happiness." But the older girl is considerably less blithe. "Small and thin, with dark eyes which already showed an acceptance of the world's shortcomings," Fitzgerald writes, she "was not like her mother and even less like her father. The crucial moment when children realise that their parents are younger than they are had long since been passed by Martha."
Their father is farther afield. Unable to bear the prospect of living on the Grace, he's staying in Stoke Newington, part of London but a lost world to his wife and daughters. Meanwhile, Nenna spends her time going over incidents that seem to have led to her current situation, and the matter of some missing squash racquets becomes of increasing import. Though she is peaceful by nature, experience and poverty are wearing Nenna down. Her confidante Maurice, after a momentary spell of optimism, also returns to his life of little expectation and quiet acceptance: "Tenderly responsive to the self-deceptions of others, he was unfortunately too well able to understand his own."
Penelope Fitzgerald views her creations with deep but wry compassion. Having lived on a barge herself, she offers her expert spin on the dangers, graces and whimsies of river life. Nenna, too, has become a savant, instantly recognizing on one occasion that the mud encasing the family cat is not from the Reach. This "sagacious brute" is almost as complex as his human counterparts, constantly forced to adjust her notions of vermin and authority. Though Stripey is capable of catching and killing very young rats, the older ones chase her. "The resulting uncertainty as to whether she was coming or going had made her, to some extent, mentally unstable."
As always, Fitzgerald is a master of the initially bizarre juxtaposition. Adjacent sentences often seem like delightful non sequiturs--until they flash together in an effortless evocation of character, era and human absurdity. Nenna recalls, for instance, how the buds had dropped off the plant her husband rushed to the hospital when Martha was born. She "had never criticized the bloomless azalea. It was the other young mothers in the beds each side of her who had laughed at it. That had been 1951. Two of the new babies in the ward had been christened Festival." Tiny comical epiphanies such as these have caused the author to be dubbed a "British miniaturist". Yet the phrase utterly misses the risks Fitzgerald's novellas take, the discoveries they make and the endless pleasures they provide. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Praise for Penelope Fitzgerald and ‘Offshore’:
‘An astonishing book. Hardly more than 50,000 words, it is written with a manic economy that makes it seem even shorter, and with a tamped-down force that continually explodes in a series of exactly controlled detonations. “Offshore” is a marvellous achievement: strong, supple, humane, ripe, generous and graceful.’ Bernard Levin, Sunday Times
‘She writes the kind of fiction in which perfection is almost to be hoped for, unostentatious as true virtuosity can make it, its texture a pure pleasure.’ Frank Kermode, London Review of Books
‘Perfectly balanced…the novelistic equivalent of a Turner watercolour.’ Washington Post
‘Reading a Penelope Fitzgerald novel is like being taken for a ride in a peculiar kind of car. Everything is of top quality – the engine, the coachwork and the interior all fill you with confidence. Then, after a mile or so, someone throws the steering-wheel out of the window.’ Sebastian Faulks
‘This Booker prize winner is a slightly dark, witty novel … The brilliant Fitzgerald takes a subtle squint at thwarted love, loneliness and the human need to be necessary’ Val Hennessy, Daily Mail--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title. See all Product description
Top customer reviews
Offering a glimpse of the lives of the houseboat community at the Battersea Reach in the Thames circa 1960, the characters are undeveloped and motivations skimpily dealt with. What was praised as brevity, I felt it was a paltry and undeveloped narrative that jumped from one character to the next in a schizophrenic fashion. Richard Blake is something of an unofficial leader of the community, and his ex-Navy experience grants him good stead. Maurice, a young affable sailor with greater ambitions, is not a good judge of character, and unwittingly lets his friend Harry use his boat for shady dealings. Then there's Nenna, abandoned by her husband, Edward, whom I gather has the same problem with living on the boat as Richard's wife, Laura, so it comes as no surprise what happens next when their respective spouses have enough of this unsatisfactory way of making a home.
Nenna's children, Martha and Tilda, are given such unrealistic speech for children that it renders the supposedly innocent wisdom of six-year-old Tilda especially, contrived and totally unbelievable. And the stilted dialogue isn't just limited to the children. When Nenna decides to confront Edward to salvage the marriage or to confront him, the way they quarrel and how Nenna speaks to Edward's landlord, and his mother, both of whom Nenna had just met, totally blew me away, and not in a good way.
By the end of this thankfully short book, I was no wiser about any of the characters' struggles, although there were a few weak attempts to show their isolation and outcast status in society. The much-talked about bond between these houseboat dwellers merely culminated in a few sit togethers after-hours. What a colossal disappointment.
Her experience of living with her family on a rat-infested barge at Battersea forms the basis of this book about a diverse group of eccentrics living at Battersea Reach in the early 1960s. These characters and their moored riverboats are introduced in the opening chapter – insurance broker Richard [‘a man who has two clean handkerchiefs on him at half past three in the morning’] who lives on Lord Jim, a sea-going converted minesweeper, with his wife, Laura, who is determined to move back on land, Maurice a male prostitute has renamed his barge Maurice from Dondeschipolschuygen IV after realising that everyone referred to one another by their boat’s name, Willis a marine artist lives in Dreadnaught which he struggles to keep afloat, mother-of-two Nenna bought Grace after her husband abandoned her whilst Woody, a retired company director, owns Rochester but spends winters with his wife in Purley.
Nenna, a Canadian ex-pat, and her daughters, 12-year old Martha [‘armed at all points against the possible disappointments of her life, conscious of the responsibilities of protecting her mother and sister, worried at the gaps in her education’] and her precocious 6-year old sister, Tilda, who ‘cared nothing for the future, and had, as a result, a great capacity for happiness’ form a close-knit group. However, Tilda’s language, knowledge and vocabulary does not quite ring true.
Neither girl thinks much of their school and one of their nuns wrote a special prayer for them ‘Heart of Jesus, grant that the non-Catholic father of Thy little servants, Martha and Mathilda, may be opened, that his tepid soul may become fervent, and that he may return to establish himself on his rightful hearth, Amen’. This rather deadpan humour is one of the joys throughout this book. When on her own, much of Nessa’s time is taken up imagining ‘a kind of perpetual magistrates’ hearing, in which her own version of her marriage was shown as ridiculously simple and demonstrably right, and then, almost exactly at the same time, as incontrovertibly wrong.’ This extended passage is deeply moving and tremendously funny in equal measure. Needless to say, Nenna’s attempted reconciliation with her husband does not go according to plan.
Stripey, the sisters’ cat, is a character in her own right, constantly covered in mud and oil, fighting smaller rats and escaping from larger ones [this ‘uncertainty as to whether she was coming or going had made her, to some extent, mentally unstable’]. ‘She habitually moved in a kind of nautical crawl, with her stomach close to the deck, as though close furled and ready for dirty weather,’ of which there is much in the story. Fitzgerald’s descriptions of the Thames, its tides and traffic are clearly rooted in personal experience.
The moored riverboats reflect the rootless nature of the characters and their unfulfilled lives. The pace of the book matches the stationary boats until the final quarter when it picks up dramatically. However, at the end there is little resolution with the characters still remaining very much in between. Initially, I felt I wanted more but then remembered Phineas T Barnum’s quote about leaving the reader wanting more.
Fitzgerald makes the reader concerned about a group of characters who are outsiders and lonely; not even Nenna is really sympathetic since she ignores her children and simply accepts her situation [one that was certainly not unique in the 1960s]; indeed there are times when Tilda is by far the more adult personality. Whilst she can talk about her situation to Maurice he is too immature to offer any real assistance.
The author has a very spare style and a slightly subversive, surrealist perspective on life. After recently reading rather too many ‘wordy’ books, this comes as a very welcome corrective.
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