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Offshore: A Novel Paperback – Bargain Price, October 14, 2014
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|Paperback, Bargain Price, October 14, 2014||
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Offshore possesses perfect, very odd pitch. In just over 130 pages of the wittiest and most melancholy prose, Penelope Fitzgerald limns 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 center 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. --Kerry Fried --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Here is life among the down, out and quirky, housed precariously in barges on the river Thames. "With economical prose and wonderfully vivid dialogue," Booker Prize-winner Fitzgerald "fashions a wry, fast-moving story whose ambiguous ending is exactly right," said PW.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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What resonates on each subsequent skimming or reading is the subtle, brilliant way Fitzgerald portrays the novel's tight-knit community as, fundamentally, an unorthodox family. Set in the early 1960s, the story is surprisingly autobiographical (something I didn't know when I'd first read it); Fitzgerald, too, lived on an old barge on the Thames for two years with her three children. Although her heroine, Nenna, is a decade younger than the author had been during her river years, and here there are two children rather than three, it can be disarming to understand that this truly odd assortment of characters has been transformed from real life.
At times, the two girls (as precocious as children are in all of Fitzgerald's novels) steal the show. Their quips are frequently childish and clever all at once: "I hate very old toys," retorts six-year-old Tilda. "They may have been alright for very old children." Observant and acrobatic river rats, both girls are religiously absent from school and instead get their "education" from their surroundings, exhibiting a maturity often lacking in the neighbors. Among the adults is a rentboy named Maurice, whose illicit, "professional" activities are complicated by his allowing his boat to be used for the transfer of stolen goods. Sam, an elderly painter, is trying to sell his boat and would appreciate it, thank you very much, if his neighbors wouldn't mention the leak to prospective buyers. Richard, the unofficial leader of the bunch, owns the only shipshape vessel and lives apart from his wife, who detests life on the river. Richard's situation mirrors that of Nenna, whose inept, unemployable husband also lives apart from his family and who wants her to sell the damn boat and end this bizarre display of independence: "It's not for me to come for you, it's for you to get rid of it. I'm not quarreling about money. If you don't want to sell it, why can't you rent it out?"
There is in fact a plot, and all the pieces come together, almost tragically and yet entertainingly in a madcap climax. But the real focuses of the book are the erstwhile network of friends that forms on the river and the assertion of responsibility (or, in some cases, the lack of it) by each of the main characters. This is a book that pays rereading; it's both funnier and more heartrending the second time out.
Page after page, this is a miraculous book, miraculous in its genial understanding of character, doubly miraculous in its powers of description. For example, the effect of the rising tide: "On every barge on the Reach a very faint ominous tap, no louder than the door of a cupboard shutting, would be followed by louder ones from every strake, timber and weatherboard, a fusillade of thunderous creaking, and even groans that seemed human. The crazy old vessels, riding high in the water without cargo, awaited their owners' return." Or the description of Stripey, the James children's mud-encrusted cat: "The ship's cat was in every way appropriate to the Reach. 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."
For a while, the closed community of oddball characters seems almost a set-up for an Agatha Christie mystery, and Fitzgerald's first novel, THE GOLDEN CHILD, was indeed a mystery. But her remaining eight books -- all short, all astonishingly different -- take a more subtle tack. Whether based on her own life (including OFFSHORE and her other Booker nomination, THE BOOKSHOP) or set in distant times and places (pre-Revolutionary Moscow in THE BEGINNING OF SPRING, Goethe's Germany in THE BLUE FLOWER), they all share a sense of slightly sad comedy. So it is with OFFSHORE. Miracle-worker though she is, Fitzgerald eschews the easy miracle of a neatly sewn-up ending. The reader is left to imagine a consequence in which each of these lives moves forward into a new phase, perhaps happy, perhaps less so. But the close community of the opening has broken up. Writing in 1979, Fitzgerald sets the book in 1962, during the brief flowering of "swinging London," after which everything would change. Though no more than a faint background presence, she is extraordinarily sensitive to the pathos of impermanence. And she paints these lives lived on the margins of the tides with both a smile and a tear for their inherent unstability.