06 March 2011

Book Review: Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

I think these may be the wrong kind of
boats, but the picture conveys the
feel of the setting better than
the pretty edition I own
Penelope Fitzgerald fills the 141 pages of Offshore with an odd assortment of Londoners living on boats moored on the Battersea Reach of the Thames during the swingin' sixties. It is not so much that each of the boat dwellers is odd, but taken as a whole they make for an odd assortment. And in a way, even the most conventional among them seem a little eccentric based solely on the fact that they have chosen to live on the Thames despite the practical and emotional complications imposed by doing so. For some, living offshore makes them quirky, for others being quirky makes them want to live offshore.

Richard kind of steals the show for me. In some ways he is the archetype former military character that pops up so frequently in British popular culture. Doesn't there always seem to be a fussy colonel or major tucked away somewhere in so many books?  And it is no surprise that the control freak in the book is the one that appeals to me. Sure I was touched by single(ish) mom Nenna and amused by her lively, resourceful daughters Martha and Tilda. And yes, Maurice the rent boy was as amusing as he was tragic (although I unfortunately kept picturing John Inman from "Are You Being Served"). Compared to the others, Richard's demons and desires seem much less dramatic, but set against his own reality they are no less consequential. Here Fitzgerald introduces us to Richard:
All the meetings of the boat-owners, by a movement as natural as the tides themselves, took place on Richard's converted Ton class minesweeper. Lord Jim, a felt reproof to amateurs, in speckless, always-renewed gray paint, overshadowed the other craft and was nearly twice their tonnage, Just as Richard, in his decent dark blue blazer, dominated the meeting itself. And yet he by no means wanted this responsibility. Living on Battersea Reach, overlooked by some very good houses, and under the surveillance of the Port of London Authority, entailed, surely, a certain standard of conduct. Richard would be one of the last men on earth or water to want to impose it. Yet someone must. Duty is what no-one else will do at the moment. Fortunately he did not have to define duty. War service in the RNVR, and his whole temperament before and since, had done that for him.
And from time to time Richard's inability to cope with anything but the most straightforward and linear makes him seem a little vulnerable. There are repeated, rather humorous references to his need to block out anything extraneous to his line of thought at any given moment.
On the whole, he disliked comparisons, because they made you think about more than one thing at a time.
Offshore is by no means Richard's story. Nenna is really the focus of the book. And the other characters are more than just bit players. Fitzgerald packs a lot into a short book. Compared to other Fitzgeralds I have read, I think Offshore is less introspective and more accessible than The Bookshop but defintely more emotionally sophisticated than Human Voices. Not surprising that this is the one that won her the Booker Prize.


  1. I have only read one book by Penelope Fitzgerald so far, The Bookshop but loved her style, the story and the characters. This storyline sounds unique and filled with some interesting characters. I also like that there's a little humor in Offshore.

    I'm certainly going to add this book to my tbr list!
    ~ Amy

  2. I've only read The Bookshop, so I esp. appreciate this review. Had to smile at your question about the colonels and majors tucked away in British lit. Will keep my eyes out for this one. Thanks again for sharing it with us - it's good to have you back, btw.

  3. This is the only one of Fitzgerald's books that I've read, but I liked it quite a lot and want to read more. I thought the character portraits were so impressive. As you say, none of them, even the cat, feel like bit players.

  4. Wonderful review! I've only read one Penelope Fitzgerald book, The Bookshop, which I adored. I've been meaning to read more by her and have a copy of this as well as The Blue Flower. I think I may try this one next given your wonderful words!

  5. Nice review, Thomas - I want to read more PF and this sounds a good place to carry on with her work. I've read The Bookshop (loved) and Human Voices (meh). Think I have this somewhere... or maybe not. Will have a hunt.

  6. I have only read The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald which I admired and I will now read Offshore.
    Last week I bought in a charity shop The Water Gypsies by A.P.Herbert. It is an orange and white Penguin and was originally published in 1930. It is set in the late 1920s and is about a community of boat people who live and work the Thames barges moored at Hammersmith. I think these two books will make an interesting contrast and I look forward to reading them, hopefully back-to-back.

  7. Amy: The more I read PF the more I like her and the more I like the books by her that I have already read.

    Susan: You will start to see the military brass everywhere.

    Teresa: You are so right about Stripey the cat!

    Steph: I also own The Blue Flower but will have to wait until the end of the TBR dare to read it.

    Simon: Thanks Si. (Can I call you Si?)

    Jill: That Herbert book sounds fascinating in light of having just read Offshore. Especially given the differences in time period.

  8. I really enjoyed this book. I'd also read The Bookshop and The Blue Flower, which I reviewed here:

    I'm waiting for someone to recommend another one of hers so I know which to read next. Thanks for reviewing this.

  9. You can call me Si ;)
    Not many people do, but my brother does, so you'll be in good company. Other people call me Sim. Take your pick!


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