Having arrived late to Penelope Fitzgerald, I’ve been trying to catch up with a few of her novels over the past year or so. The Bookshop will make my end-of-year list, so I had high hopes for Booker Prize winner, Offshore, another novel that draws on Fitzgerald’s own life experience. Her time working in a Southwold bookshop informed the former while her years living on a barge on the Thames gave rise to the latter.
First published in 1979 but set in the early sixties, Offshore features a small community of individuals who live on houseboats on the Battersea Reach stretch of the Thames. It’s probably fair to say that these boat dwellers are outsiders, unsettled characters getting by on the margins of society. Despite living within touching distance of the security and solidity of dry land, they remain vulnerable, somewhat cast adrift in life.
The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate amounts of money. But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway. (pg. 2)
The group’s somewhat reluctant leader is Richard, an investment counsellor and ex-Navy man who lives on Lord Jim, a converted minesweeper. Living alongside Richard is his ‘shires-bred’ wife, Laura, a woman who would much rather a nice house in the Home Counties, preferably something straight out of Country Life magazine. Dreadnought is occupied by Sam Willis, a semi-retired painter of maritime landscapes. Then there’s Maurice, a sympathetic, easy-going rent boy who allows his boat to be used as a repository for stolen goods. One or two others also feature, but the novel’s central character is 32-year-old Nenna, owner of Grace.
Offshore ebbs and flows along with the lives of these somewhat fragile, lonely individuals. While the story touches on various situations that affect different members of the community, this is not a plot-driven novel. Instead, Fitzgerald’s focus is on her characters: their hopes and aspirations, their failures and compromises.
Nenna’s marriage has broken down (possibly temporarily, possibly permanently) and she lives on Grace with her two children, Martha (aged 12) and Tilda (aged 6). Martha and Tilda are independent, resourceful creatures. Like the children in The Beginning of Spring and The Bookshop, they seem mature beyond their years.
One of the things I like most about Fitzgerald is the way she conveys the sense of a character in just one or two sentences. Take Nenna, for instance:
Nenna’s character was faulty, but she had the instinct to see what made other people unhappy, and this instinct had only failed her once, in the case of her own husband. (pgs. 10-11)
And here’s a telling description of Martha, Nenna’s eldest – telling in the sense that it conveys almost as much about Nenna as it does about her daughter:
Nenna would have felt better pleased with herself if she had resembled her elder daughter. But Martha, small and thin, with dark eyes which already showed an acceptance of the world’s shortcomings, 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. (pg. 21)
Whenever she is alone, Nenna’s thoughts turn to the demise of her marriage to Edward. (Ideally she would like Edward to come and live on Grace with her and the children, but that seems a fairly distant prospect.) These reflections take the form of a judicial hearing in which Nenna is questioned by a judge, while her conscience, quite uninvited, maintains a close watch over the proceedings. Here’s a brief excerpt:
‘…Why don’t I go to him? Well, why doesn’t he come to us? He hasn’t found anywhere at all that we could all of us live together. He’s in some kind of rooms in the north-east of London somewhere.’
‘42b Milvain Street, Stoke Newington.’
‘In Christ’s name, who’s ever heard of such a place?’
‘Have you made any effort to go and see the plaintiff there, Mrs James? I must remind you that we cannot admit second-hand evidence.’
So now it was out. She was the defendant, or rather the accused, and should have known it all along. (pg. 40)
In the hands of another writer, this could have been a little gimmicky, but Fitzgerald uses it very effectively here. It gives a clear insight into Nenna’s mind – the way she thinks and how she sees her relationship with Edward.
When Nenna finally goes to see him in Stoke Newington, things don’t go quite to plan. She finds Edward lodging in a single room in a house owned by the mother of one of his old school friends, hardly an ideal setting for a reconciliation.
Things were going as badly as they could. From the room immediately beneath them, somebody began to play the piano, a Chopin nocturne, with heavy emphasis, but the piano was by no means suitable for Chopin and the sound travelled upwards as a hellish tingling of protesting strings.
‘Eddie, is this the only room you’ve got?’
‘I don’t see anything wrong with it.’
She noticed now that there was a kind of cupboard in the corner which was likely to contain a washbasin, and a single bed, tucked in with a plaid rug. Surely they’d do better making love on board Grace than on a few yards of Mackenzie tartan? (pgs. 113-114)
One of most impressive things about Offshore stems from Fitzgerald’s ability to treat her characters with sympathy despite their failings. She has a knack for conveying humour alongside the misfortune and calamities that touch the lives of these barge-dwellers, and yet there is compassion in her writing, too.
While I didn’t love Offshore quite as much as The Bookshop, there is plenty to enjoy here. Each scene is beautifully observed. The novel has a strong sense of place, alive with the sights and smells of the riverside and glimpses of Chelsea in the early sixties. Fitzgerald offers just enough detail to give the reader a sense of each of her characters, their personality and outlook on life. Maurice is as amusing as he is hapless. There are touching exchanges between Nenna and Richard as they find solace in each other’s company. Willis’s attempts to patch up and sell his boat end in disaster – an impromptu party to celebrate the potential sale of Dreadnought is one of the novel’s delights. In some ways, Offshore reminded me a little of Mike Leigh’s films (something along the lines of High Hopes), and that’s no bad thing.
Max’s excellent review prompted me to pick up this novel, and his post contains links to a range of other reviews and articles about the book.
Offshore is published by Fourth Estate. Source: personal copy. Book 12/20, #TBR20 round 2.