Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

Next up in my challenge to read all of the Booker Prize winners is Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, which won the prize in 1979.

Set in the early 1960s, Offshore looks at the lives of a disparate community of barge-dwellers living in Battersea Reach:

  • Nenna, a single mother who is struggling to make ends meet struggles to look after her two daughters
  • Maurice, who works as a male prostitute, is Nenna’s confidante
  • Willis – an artist who is trying desperately to sell his boat before it sinks
  • Boat-proud Woodie
  • Richard, ex-Navy, who has the best boat and is the natural leader of the community

The characters presented here all have problems of some kind – some big, some relatively small, and some more obvious than others – and it’s through these problems that the community comes together.  Reading this, Nenna seems to have the biggest problems – her husband is absent, and she seems handicapped by this loss to the point that her daughters, aged 12 and 6, are forced to fend for themselves, and have stopped attending school as they scavenge the shores of the Thames for items that can be sold.

I thought that the setting used in Offshore was an interesting one, and likely to have been inspired by Fitzgerald’s own time living on a houseboat on the Thames.  The houseboats are all moored, and so their only movement is dictated by the ebb and flow of the tide.  Similarly the characters come across as being stuck in a rut, unable to move of their own accord or make their own decisions; they wait for events to happen to them.  For instance, Richard, whose wife Laura does not like their current abode, wishes to obtain a house in the country, does nothing to resolve the issue.

I really struggled to get into this novel.  It felt like I’d tuned into the story halfway through, yet was still expected to know all of the characters and their backgrounds.  There is very little plot, and whilst the ending is dramatic, it is in no way conclusive – the reader is left to imagine what happens next.  Whilst this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – indeed some novels do this very well – Offshore just didn’t grab me.

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