So then, Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald which won in 1979 was my latest Booker read. This is only the fourth Penelope Fitzgerald novel that I have read, and I have to say straight off – I enjoyed it enormously. A very busy weekend has forced me to read it slowly – which I am glad of as I have been able to savour it. It is after all a pretty short book.
A quote on the back cover of this edition caught my eye – so I must share it.
“Reading a Penelope Fitzgerald novel is like being taken for a ride in a peculiar kind of car. Everything is of top quality – the engine, the coachwork and the interior all fill you with confidence. Then after a mile or so, someone throws the steering-wheel out of the window”
A mixed group of people live on houseboats on the Thames at Battersea Reach in the early 1960’s. They are each temporarily lost, often eccentric and have come to belong and rely on one another. Willis, a naval artist who has never been to sea, is hoping to sell his boat The Dreadnought before she inevitably sinks. Richard an ex-navy man dominates the Reach as does his much larger boat, while his wife Laura hates the boats and frequently returns to her upper-middle class family. Richard and Laura are the only inhabitants of the Reach with any money. Maurice, a male prostitute, and receiver of stolen goods has become particularly good friends with Nenna, who abandoned by her husband is living on the boat Grace with her two daughters Martha and Tilda.
“During the small hours, tipsy Maurice became an oracle, ambiguous, wayward, but impressive. Evan his voice changed a little. He told the sombre truths of the light-hearted, betraying in a casual hour what was never intended to be shown. If the tide was low the two of them watched the gleams on the foreshore, at half tide they heard the water chuckling, waiting to lift the boats, at flood tide they saw the river as a powerful god, bearded with the white foam of detergents, calling home the twenty-seven lost rivers of London, sighing as the night declined.”
The two girls forage along the foreshore – and don’t always attend school. They explore Battersea and Chelsea, but are more at home on the river. Six year old Tilda wonderfully old for her years is a spiky breath of fresh air.
“Tilda knew very well that the river could be dangerous. Although she had become a native of the boats, and pitied the tideless and ratless life of the Chelsea inhabitants, she respected the water and knew that one could die within sight of the Embankment.”
The characters relationships are altered by the changes in their circumstances, the world of this disparate little community is under threat. The reader senses this fragility of a way of life, from the very start. Fitzgerald perfectly pitches this beautiful little novel. The tidal flow of the river, the rise and fall of the boats, the mud along the river bank – the interactions of her characters come together to create a wonderful sense of time and place.
I have added these quotes from the book because I loved the Fitzgerald’s writing. The descriptions of the river are particularly good I think. This book is a real little gem.