Offshore – Book Review

offshore The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960’s, many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate amounts of money. But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway. – from Offshore, page 10 –

Penelope Fitzgerald’s Booker Prize winning novel Offshore is set in the 1960’s along the Thames and introduces a cast of eccentric and unique characters whose lives criss-cross and intersect as they go about their days on the worn out barges of the area. There is Richard, a retired navy man whose desire for organization unites the others, and Maurice who receives stolen goods, and Willis whose boat Dreadnought is fated for tragedy. But, it is perhaps Nenna who is the most interesting – a woman who has been abandoned by her husband and is trying to raise two precocious, young girls. Tilly, the youngest daughter, loves barge life and her courageous and lively spirit is infectious.

Tilda cared nothing for the future, and had, as a result, a great capacity for happiness. – from Offshore, page 27 –

Tilda, in spite of her lucid gray eyes, showing clarity beneath clarity, which challenged the nuns not to risk scandalising the innocent, had often been in disfavour. She was known to be one of the little ones who had filled in their colouring books irreverently, making our Lord’s beard purple, or even green, largely, to be sure, because she never bothered to get hold of the best crayons first. – from Offshore, page 41 –

As Fitzgerald’s novella progresses, it is Nenna’s domestic unhappiness which unites the characters, and it is Tilly’s innocent optimism which creates the irony in the story.

Fitzgerald’s story is full of a black humor and her writing is clear and descriptive. Offshore feels much like a character study or a long short story, and its ending is both unexpected and unresolved.

This was my first Fitzgerald novel, and I appreciated her wonderful use of language and development of the characters. But when I turned the last page I felt oddly disconnected and disappointed. I wanted more, yet there was no more to be had. Offshore is strongly literary in style and it is a quick read. It whet my appetite for more of Penelope Fitzgerald’s work.

Interesting side note: people are still living on the antique barges on the Thames.


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  1. I’m going to read this next. I haven’t read any of her books before either, so I’m looking forward to seeing what they’re like.

    • Dawn on March 29, 2009 at 12:19

    Interesting note about people still living in barges.

    What drew you to the book, Wendy? Did you pick it up because of the Booker?

    • Wendy on March 29, 2009 at 12:41

    Jackie: I will look forward to reading your thoughts on the book.

    Dawn: A Yahoo group I belong to chose this book to read for April…and since I am trying to read all the Booker winners, I thought this would be a good time to read it.

    • laura on March 29, 2009 at 12:53

    Interesting review, Wendy. This one is in my 2009 reading plan since, like you, I’m trying to read all of the Booker winners. I predict I’ll give it 3 stars! I hope you’ll post your review on The Complete Booker, too!

    • Wendy on March 29, 2009 at 13:46

    Laura: *laughs* I think I was posting my review there when you wrote this comment! I predict you’ll give it a three star as well – can’t wait to see if we’re both right!

    • Sarah on March 31, 2009 at 03:16

    I read Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop and similarly felt underwhelmed. The writing was beautiful but I felt vaguely disappointed at the end of the novel as I didn’t feel it went anywhere or understand what the point of it was.

    I’ve heard Pym’s The Blue Flower and Rites of Spring are very good, but haven’t read them yet. My first experience of her put me of a bit.

    • Wendy on March 31, 2009 at 07:06

    Sarah: I’m glad to hear that someone else felt as I did…Someone told me the Blue Flower was better. I will give Fitzgerald another try, I think, if only because I appreciate her beautiful writing. But, she may be one of those writers I really want to love, but just doesn’t meet the grade. Will see… Thanks for your input.

    • Tracey on April 3, 2009 at 11:38

    Thanks for your review Wendy, this one is on my list to read. I recently read The Blue Flower and enjoyed it. It’s strengths for me were the beautiful writing, dry humour and sense of time and place rather than the plot or characters, so it sounds similar to Offshore in that way.

    • Wendy on April 4, 2009 at 08:20

    You’re welcome, Tracey…I agree that Fitzgerald’s strengths are her writing and humor (as well as sense of place)… I guess I just wanted a little bit more plot!

    • tea on May 2, 2009 at 11:01

    I enjoyed your review of “Offshore” by Penelope Fitzgerald. I’ve read “The Bookshop.” Like you at the end of the book, I felt empty too. I felt as though I had missed something. You did a swell review of her book.

    • Wendy on May 5, 2009 at 12:33

    Tea: Thanks – I’ve heard a lot of people with this complaint of Fitzgerald’s books…glad I’m not the only one who was disappointed.

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