When least is most

This is my review of Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald.

At first, “Offshore” seems like a farcical soap opera involving an eccentric little community of barge-dwellers on the Thames near Blackheath Bridge in the early 1960s. Penelope Fitzgerald’s own experience of living on a houseboat which sank gives her vivid descriptions of changing tides, varying qualities of mud, and parts of boats an authentic air. When “amiable young” Maurice realises that self-appointed leader Richard calls all residents by the names of their boats, he quickly gives “Dondeschiepolschuygen IV” his own name. This quirky bit of humour along with some much more subtle, wry examples soon had me hooked along with the author’s gift for conveying implicitly a great deal about her characters’ situations and personalities. I also enjoyed her launches into unexpected little scenes, as when the child Tilly leaps between abandoned objects precariously stranded in the river mud at low tide to prise out examples of beautiful antique tiles which she and her sister can sell to buy Cliff Richards records at the local Woolworths.

From the outset, the author distances herself a little from the barge-dwellers to observe them as “creatures neither of firm land nor water” who “would have liked to be more respectable than they were… but a certain failure to be like other people caused them to sink back with so much else that drifted or was washed up into the mud moorings”. This approach reduces our own sense of involvement with the characters, so we tend to regard them as mere sources of entertainment. By the middle, I started to get a little bored with them and to think, wrongly, that having established her cast, the author was drifting on the ebb tide with little plot in mind. Some details feel a bit false, like the reference to two “family planning shops” close together in the same high street (doesn’t sound right for 1961-2). At six, Tilly, seems far too articulate and knowing, but I later concluded that, with her own highly educated and perhaps somewhat unorthodox and rarified background, Penelope Fitzgerald may indeed have known or even produced children as precocious as this.

As the book worked up to an ending which shocks you with its abruptness, but on reflection seems the most appropriate one possible, I began to see how the threads of the story all prove to have a purpose, link and mesh tightly together. In the process, my sympathy for the characters grew. Like other readers, and unaware from my kindle of the brevity of the book, I made the mistake of reading too fast, rather than savour the striking prose and non sequiturs which hit home if you spend a little time on them.

This book is an acquired taste, but, although it might now seem too dated to do so, I can well understand why it won the Booker Prize in 1979.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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