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Offshore, written by Penelope Fitzgerald


“Biologically they could be said, as most tideline creatures are, to be ‘successful’. They were not easily dislodged,”

Fitzgerald’s story focuses on a few select barge inhabitants harboured at Battersea Reach in the early 60s.  A mixed bag of characters, their lives are far from mainstream.  Maurice works as a male prostitute, harbouring stolen goods on his boat for a thug named Harry.  Nenna, an abandoned wife, lives with her two truant children.  Then there’s Willis, a marine artist, who’s desperate to sell his rotting barge before it sinks.  The only sensible person appears to be an ex-naval officer, Richard, “the kind of man to have two clean handkerchiefs on him at half past three in the morning”, but even he scuttles his relationship with his wife.   Like their boats, tethered to the mainland, living between land and water, they find themselves outside London’s “respectable” society, drifting on the rising and falling tide, having lost their purpose in life.

Fitzgerald described her novel as a “tragi-farce,” Her characters are incapable of making a decision, which inevitably leaves them in stasis: romantically looking back to the past, but unable to propel themselves forward.  They are, however, not without their skills.  Nenna was a concert-trained violinist and Willis is a very capable painter.  This balance between character flaws and expertise allows Fitzgerald to write about her characters with sensitivity.  In doing so, the reader is aware that the strength of this story is based on Fitzgerald’s keen observation of human nature where the action is generated not so much by plot, but by the constant motion of characters’ emotional states.

While the adults have resigned themselves to their unfulfilled lives, the children show a surprising amount of chutzpah and maturity. Nenna’s daughters, six-year-old Tilda and twelve-year-old Martha, have a vitality and an insight into life that is in stark contrast to the adults.  The two make for a very amusing pair.  Their spirits undampened by the lack of future prospects, they live a day to day existence, making the best of their situation.  Tilda studies the Thames from her advantage point on Grace’s mast.  She can rattle off tidal times like an able seaman.  Martha has an encyclopaedic knowledge of De Morgan tiles, allowing her to outsmart an antique dealer with their mudlarking treasures.  Their education is one gleaned from life and their environment rather than the schoolroom.  “ Everything that you learn is useful” says Martha.  And from their observations, they have developed their own life’s philosophies as Tilda relays when describing the kind nature of Woodie.

“It’s not the kind who inherit the earth, it is the poor, the humble and the meek.

What happens to the kind, then? [Martha]

They get kicked in the teeth.”

And with this knowledge the two girls handle the trials and tribulations of life with a grace that has passed the adults by.

The book partly echoes Fitzgerald’s own life of living on the Thames.  You get the sense there is a real understanding for being penniless and without hope, whilst being overlooked by the grand houses of Chelsea.  Fitzgerald aptly sketches this small world harboured between land and water, which combined with her lyrical descriptions of the Thames, bursts of satire and use of nature as a metaphorical gauge for her characters emotions makes for a book full of pathos.

Written by Rachel Boser

Author: Penelope Fitzgerald

Publisher: 4th Estate

ISBN: 978-0-00-732097-7


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