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Offshore Paperback – April 3, 1998
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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
From Library Journal
Fitzgerald was red hot in 1998. Not only did her most recent work, The Blue Flower, win top fiction honors at the National Book Critics Circle Awards, but several of her older titles were reprinted. Among them was this 1979 Booker Prize winner, which follows a bevy of characters living in houseboats on the Thames. (Classic Returns, LJ 5/1/98)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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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.
immediately engaging as this novel. Even though characters are sketched rather than exhaustively portrayed, we feel that we know them as people. They are never fully in control of their lives, nor are we. The community of the barge dwellers is both realistically and sympathetically drawn, based, as it is, on the life experience of the author, whose own house-boat barge is known to have sunk twice. People who live outside of what we may call “normal” society, whether by choice or by necessity, tend to be generous in helping each other to survive.
When the book ends abruptly with two men adrift on the Thames clinging to a barge that has come unmoored during a life-threatening storm, the reader has come to care about every member of this community and wants to know what will happen next, but we are left to imagine that they may survive or not, as in life. Since the now-unmoored barge has been the only one made fast to the wharf, the reader may be aware that all of the barges linked to it, with nothing but their rusty anchors left to secure them in the river mud, are also at risk.