Recent Reading: Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

by Sunita

My first book of 2019 is from my regular TBR, an ebook I probably bought because it was on sale. I own three books by Fitzgerald but I’ve never read any of other work despite being a fan of mid-century UK women authors. I picked this one because people were discussing it as part of a Booker-themed reading project at The Mookes and the Gripes GR group. Readers, I loved it.

Offshore 2014 cover

The story is set among barge-dwellers on the Battersea Reach of the Thames River in the early 1960s. Nella is a wife and mother of two daughters who is separated from her husband. She still seems to love him very much but he won’t live on the boat with her and she refuses to talk to him or visit him in north London, so they are at an impasse. Nella’s river community includes Richard, whose boat is shipshape and whose wife hates living in it; Maurice, a rent-boy who befriends Nella and her daughters and in whom Nella confides; Willis, an aging artist whose boat is barely staying above waterline; and Woodie, who lives half the year alone on his well-maintained boat and half the year on land with his wife. Nella’s children, the frighteningly adult and clear-eyed Martha and the born-to-water Tilda, move among the boats and people constantly and avoid attending their convent school as much as possible.

This is a world of liminality. Everyone is in an in-between state of one kind or another, and while it seems as if nothing is going on, lives are moving and changing, almost imperceptibly. Willis is getting ready to sell his boat, which sets off a chain of related and seemingly unrelated events. Richard’s wife reaches the end of her tether, which changes Richard and Nella’s relationship and brings buried feelings to the surface. Nella’s sister, who lives in Canada and who hovers in the background for much of the story, sending visitors who never arrive, shows up in London at the same time that one of her promised visitors actually arrives at Nella’s barge. The dangers of the rent-boy life finally catch up with Maurice and those around him. After three-quarters of a novel in which things barely seem to happen, everything comes to a melodramatic head.

It’s an unusual book and quite subversive. This isn’t a romanticized view of houseboat living among bohemians. Fitzgerald is blunt about the dirt, the squalor, and the fact that many of the residents are barely hanging on. Martha and Tilda are growing up in a milieu that will make them even more unfit for everyday society than they are now, even though Martha is shown to have latent yearnings for certain aspects of respectable life. She’s the adult on their boat, and it’s clear that this is a heavy and inappropriate burden. Maurice’s life isn’t explicitly described, but the dangers he faces (and in which others are entangled by proximity) aren’t sugar-coated. Richard and Woodie are the most prosperous and steady, members of the community but it is clear their preferences impose costs on those around them. But just as Fitzgerald doesn’t romanticize, she doesn’t moralize either. This is just how these people live.

The writing is superb. This is a fairly short novel, but Fitzgerald has the ability to describe a fully realized character in a minimum of words. And it’s frequently funny. It’s dry more than acerbic, and it feels utterly real. I described Martha as clear-eyed, and that’s what this novel is, too.