Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

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.

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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.

39 thoughts on “Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s interesting, isn’t it – lots of readers love Penelope Fitzgerald’s work, but almost everyone seems to have a different set of favourites! I enjoyed Offshore a great deal, just not quite as much as The Bookshop.

      Reply
  1. kimbofo

    I loved this book when I read it a few years ago. The thing that stood out for me was the remarkable sense of place she evokes: the Thames really comes alive in these pages.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the sense of place is wonderful – you really feel as though you’re there on the river with these characters. I love the way Fitzgerald draws on her own personal experience for inspiration and authenticity.

      Right, I’m off to read your review of this novel now!

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I’m a late arrival with Fitzgerald too, and although I liked the book of hers I read, I didn’t love it. I’m hoping to stumble across The Bookshop one day to see what I think of that! :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I have a feeling you’ll prefer The Bookshop to The Beginning of Spring, Karen. It’s such a great little story. Fingers crossed that you’ll find a copy one of these days. :)

      Reply
  3. gertloveday

    I wonder if it’s something to do with the order in which you read the books. I much much preferred Offshore which I read long before The Bookshop. The Bookshop felt to me like Fitzgerald just limbering up.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I did wonder about that! I really enjoyed The Beginning of Spring as well when I read it last year – that was my first Fitzgerald, followed by The Bookshop back in March. I liked Offshore a great deal, just not quite as much as The Bookshop. The characterisation is probably stronger here as the range of characters is broader. They’re more diverse and arguably better developed than those in The Bookshop where so much rests on Florence’s shoulders. I really loved the story in that one, though. Such a poignant ending, too – the closing image is pretty hard to forget…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can definitely recommend it. In fact, all three of the Fitzgeralds I’ve reviewed are very, very good indeed. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to discover her.

      Reply
  4. MarinaSofia

    What a lovely review – really whets the appetite! It’s time I reacquainted myself with Fitzgerald. I went through a period of reading her lots in my twenties, but to my shame I’ve even forgotten some of the titles. I do remember reading Offshore, simply because of the setting and subject matter being quite unique.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Marina. I can imagine any of these three novels standing up to a reread. They’re quite subtle, and the writing is so good that I’m sure you’d get more from a second shot. I was attracted to Offshore’s setting and subject matter as well. My father owned a little boat, so we spent many a weekend on the river when I was a young girl.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really liked the characters, the use of humour and the clear sense of place in Offshore. The plot does take a bit of a back seat, though – I preferred the storyline in The Bookshop. That said, I did enjoy Offshore a great deal. Did you review it, Guy? I’ll take a look over at yours in a little while.

      Reply
  5. Brian Joseph

    I am liking books that are not plot driven more and more.

    Stories told within communities like this one are common, but the nature of one consisting of houseboats makes this sound unique and sound like it provides some interesting dramatic and possibly symbolic opportunities.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Fitzgerald’s very good when it comes to portraying these small, self-contained communities – it’s a feature of both Offshore and The Bookshop. And you’re right, the setting in Offshore gives it a very distinctive feel. It’s just perfect for all manner of developments – dramatic and humourous!

      Reply
  6. Jonathan

    Well, anything that’s compared favourably to Mike Leigh’s work is worth investigating. This one sounds more appealing than others I’ve heard about but I think The Bookshop is at my local library, so that may be my first one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Mike Leigh’s films were the closest reference point I could think of. There’s a similar combination of humour and tragedy here, and I could just imagine some of these characters popping up in his work. As for Fitzgerald, The Bookshop’s great and Offshore is right up there too – I don’t think you can go wrong with either of them!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s interesting to see the range of views on this novel – I’m sorry it fell short of your expectations, though. What did you find disappointing about it? Was it the low-key nature of the plot or the characters?

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No shame in that at all – we can’t read every author! I noticed a conversation on Twitter the other day in which someone tweeted “Be proud of what you have read, not ashamed of what you haven’t.” There’s something to be said for that.

      Reply
  7. Violet

    I liked this when I read it, but I really Ioved The Bookshop. I think my favourite novel of hers, though, is The Blue Flower. I’ve got some of her non-fiction on the shelf, and the Hermoine Lee bio. I’ve been saving them. :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, The Blue Flower – I have it on my shelf. Historical fiction is not my favourite genre, but I’ve taken a chance on this as Fitzgerald’s such a great writer! It’ll be interesting to see how I get on with it – glad to hear you enjoyed it so much.

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    It’s funny you should mention The Blue Flower as, having never read Fitzgerald, that was one I’d thought of starting with. Having read all the comments, though, The Bookshop seems to be the favourite!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, I would definitely encourage you to read Fitzgerald. I think she’s a brilliant writer – very insightful and precise. As for which one to try first, The Bookshop would be a good option – it was her second novel, so you’d be starting near the beginning. And, as you say, other readers have enjoyed it!

      Reply
  9. Scott W

    I’ve only read The Blue Flower, and one of these days must get to the others. This sounds like a good candidate. I always wanted to live on a boat or a barge – for a little while.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Living on a barge does sound fun. Well, certainly in the summer months…winter might be a different matter altogether!

      It’s worth considering one one of Fitzgerald’s early novels, either this one or The Bookshop. I think she’s excellent on these small, insular communities and the way little acts or occurrences seem to take on a much greater significance.

      I’m curious to see how I get on with The Blue Flower as historical fiction is not my favourite genre. It was going cheap in a closing-down sale, so I snapped it up. I’m hoping Fitzgerald’s writing will win me over.

      Reply
  10. Emma

    Lovely review, Jacqui.
    I’ve always wondered how it felt to live on one of those barges. (My ever practical mind wonders about humidity and mosquitos…)
    We have The Bookshop on our Book Club list, so I’ll start with this one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. I think Fitzgerald captures life on the houseboats very well – it’s almost as though you’re there on the River Thames along with her characters. I really like the way she draws on her own personal experience in Offshore and The Bookshop – it seems to give these novels a strong sense of authenticity.

      Reply
  11. Max Cairnduff

    The Mike Leigh comparison is an interesting one. I can see that. I’m not however a huge Mike Leigh fan (which I shouldn’t say online – I think that counts as an automatic fail on the UK Citizenship Test) which may be why I liked this but don’t now recall it as one I love.

    How did you find the depiction of the children? I found them a bit too precocious to be entirely credible. Admittedly in part they’re a Greek chorus commenting on the adults, but they’re also presented as characters in their own right and I’m not sure they work as well as the adults.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! There’s a time and a place for Mike Leigh – I have to be in the mood for him, I must admit. High Hopes is probably my favourite of his tragicomedies, but I do find some of his characters a bit ‘mannered’ if you know what I mean. (I couldn’t stay the course with Another Year for that very reason.)

      Fitzgerald’s kids are strange creatures, aren’t they? Oddly enough, I thought Martha and Tilda were a little more believable than the children in the other two Fitzgerald novels I’ve read so far. (I’m thinking of the eldest child in The Beginning of Spring and the young girl in The Bookshop, neither of you’ll have encountered yet if I recall correctly.) I sort of bought the view that living on a barge would make Nenna’s girls super-resourceful as they probably had to fend for themselves to some extent. Plus they may have spent more time with adults than with other children, especially seeing as they weren’t attending school very regularly. I do know what you mean, though, as they are rather mature for their age, Martha in particular. And returning to The Beginning of Spring for a sec, Dolly (aged ten) is a very knowing child, almost like a little adult in her observations and speech.

      I’m quite curious to read At Freddie’s at some point – it’s set in stage school, so I can imagine those kids might be even more precocious than the ones on Offshore. I’m toying with the idea of reading the remainder of Fitzgerald’s novels in order – if so, At Freddie’s would be next but one in the sequence.

      Reply
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