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 1960’s, 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. - from Offshore, page 10 -
Penelope Fitzgerald’s Booker Prize winning novel Offshore is set in the 1960’s along the Thames and introduces a cast of eccentric and unique characters whose lives criss-cross and intersect as they go about their days on the worn out barges of the area. There is Richard, a retired navy man whose desire for organization unites the others, and Maurice who receives stolen goods, and Willis whose boat Dreadnought is fated for tragedy. But, it is perhaps Nenna who is the most interesting - a woman who has been abandoned by her husband and is trying to raise two precocious, young girls. Tilly, the youngest daughter, loves barge life and her courageous and lively spirit is infectious.
Tilda cared nothing for the future, and had, as a result, a great capacity for happiness. - from Offshore, page 27 -
Tilda, in spite of her lucid gray eyes, showing clarity beneath clarity, which challenged the nuns not to risk scandalising the innocent, had often been in disfavour. She was known to be one of the little ones who had filled in their colouring books irreverently, making our Lord’s beard purple, or even green, largely, to be sure, because she never bothered to get hold of the best crayons first. - from Offshore, page 41 -
As Fitzgerald’s novella progresses, it is Nenna’s domestic unhappiness which unites the characters, and it is Tilly’s innocent optimism which creates the irony in the story.
Fitzgerald’s story is full of a black humor and her writing is clear and descriptive. Offshore feels much like a character study or a long short story, and its ending is both unexpected and unresolved.
This was my first Fitzgerald novel, and I appreciated her wonderful use of language and development of the characters. But when I turned the last page I felt oddly disconnected and disappointed. I wanted more, yet there was no more to be had. Offshore is strongly literary in style and it is a quick read. It whet my appetite for more of Penelope Fitzgerald’s work.
Interesting side note: people are still living on the antique barges on the Thames.