Top critical review
on 3 September 2016
This novella won the Booker in 1979. I wonder why. It had glowing reviews and Fitzgerald was quite recently celebrated with a reissue of this and her other Booker-nominated works. As a first-time reader, I must admit to feeling lost about the fuss, even with the benefit of a glowing new introduction by fellow Booker alumni Alan Hollinghurst.
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.