Penelope Fitzgerald has been compared to D H Lawrence or Evelyn Waugh for her ability to depict the subtle interactions between her characters. Two of her novels - The Beginning of Spring and The Gate of Angels - were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. With that pedigree in mind, and the eulogy from Sebastian Faulks on the back of my copy of Offshore - the novel with which she did win the Booker in 1979, I was in hope of a good experience.
According to Faulks '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 grows the steering wheel out of the window.
Now I’ve finished Offshore, I’m left wondering whether Faulks was actually talking about a totally different book. I kept waiting for the moment when the unexpected would actually happen. By the end, even a chip packet being thrown out of the car window might have felt like progress. But even that was denied.
Offshore never really got going for me. It felt as if Fitzgerald conceived the idea of a novel featuring a mixture of offbeat characters all of whom are at a turning point in their lives. Then to give it more appeal, she makes them live in houseboats in a less than desirable stretch of the River Thames. We trace their lives as they unravel or , in the case of one of the river dwellers, sink. But it’s difficult to engage with these characters or feel very interested in what happens to them because they are only sketchily depicted. Their eccentricities are not markedly eccentric, or even odd. The most interesting character for me was Maurice a male prostitute whose friendly nature is repeatedly taken advantage of who use his boat as a place to stash their stolen goods. But he is absent from the book for much of the time. Nenna, the central character, is a bohemian Canadian whose husband has left her and who is left quite literally struggling to keep things afloat. The scenes in which wanders shoeless through the streets of London late one night, are the most memorable. But it’s not enough to rescue the novel.
According to a quote from the Observer on the back of my copy, Offshore is ‘a novel of crisp originality, lucid and expressive with some splendid bursts of satire’. Would that it were so. For me, the narrative sank deeper and deeper into the mud of the Thames, occasionally bobbing up for air to fool readers into thinking that something would now actually happen, only to subside even further into the depths. The experience left me feeling I’d been cheated.
A version of this review was first posted on Booker Talk