Novella a Day in May 2022 No.4

Offshore – Penelope Fitzgerald (1979) 141 pages

Penelope Fitzgerald won the Booker prize for this novella, in which she draws on her experience of living on a houseboat on the Thames at Battersea (which sank twice). She set it eighteen years earlier in 1961, at which point Battersea was not nearly as salubrious as it is now (cf: Up the Junction by Nell Dunn).

The houseboat inhabitants are all struggling in a way that gives rise to water-based imagery:

“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 1960s, 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.”

Fitzgerald evokes the setting and the characters so well without wasting a word. Opening at a meeting of the barge dwellers we meet them all, including upright Richard, and savvy, kind Maurice:

“Richard was quite correct, as technically speaking they were all in harbour, in addressing them by the names of their craft. Maurice, an amiable young man, had realised as soon as he came to the Reach that Richard was always going to do this and that he himself would accordingly be known as Dondeschiepolschuygen IV, which was inscribed in gilt lettering on his bows.

He therefore renamed his boat Maurice.”

The portrait of Maurice surprised me in being more progressive than I would expect for the time. He is a sex worker and brings customers back to his barge, where he also allows a decidedly shifty friend called Harry to store stolen goods. Maurice is never judged harshly and in fact is probably the most sympathetic of all the characters, providing real friendship to the others.

Nenna is living on Grace, seemingly having half-left her husband, who is in north London. Her daughters have adapted to their new life well, mud-larking and flogging their finds.

“You know very well that we’re two of the same kind, Nenna. It’s right for us to live where we do, between land and water. You, my dear, you’re half in love with your husband, then there’s Martha who’s half a child and half a girl, Richard who can’t give up being half in the Navy, Willis who’s half an artist and half a longshoreman, a cat who’s half alive and half dead …’”

Offshore isn’t plot-heavy, although events do build towards a surprising denouement. Rather it is a snapshot in time of people trying to find a place for themselves beyond conventional safety. For each of them, there is a sense of desperation but it lives alongside resilience, hope, and friendship.

“There isn’t one kind of happiness, there’s all kinds.”

18 thoughts on “Novella a Day in May 2022 No.4

  1. That’s an interesting thought about living on a houseboat–neither land nor water. Perhaps belonging to neither and yet making a space for oneself. You’ve certainly piqued my interest in this one Madame bibliophile. I’ve only read her Bookshop before.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fitzgerald’s Booker history is interesting. She was shortlisted in 1978, but Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea won it. Winning it in 1979 made Fitzgerald the 5th woman of 12 winners i.e. male winners v female was running almost equal in those strongly feminist years. Mind you, in 1986 an all female jury with a male chair chose Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils over Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. What happened there, eh?
    It’s interesting to tale a look at the judging panels for those early years at Wikipedia and see the notable feminist writers among the judges e.g. Rebecca West and A S Byatt. Then scroll down to the present, and sigh. No wonder things have fizzled out since then…
    The rest of the 1979 shortlist comprises Thomas Keneally’s Confederates (hmm, an Aussie writing about the US Civil War), A Bend in the River by VS Naipaul, Joseph by Julian Rathbone and Praxis by Fay Weldon.
    LOL If I were younger I’d start a project to read all of the Booker shortlists to choose my own winner. of the 1979 shortlist I’ve only read A Bend in the River and Praxis, and though it pains my feminist heart to say so, I’d give to to Naipaul (who was the first person of colour to win the Booker in 1971). But I do have a copy of Offshore and am now prompted to get on and read it, to see what I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is fascinating Lisa, thank you! I’ve not read any of the 1979 shortlist. That would be a major project to read all the shortlists, although someone must have done it. Maybe a project for my retirement! 1986 does sound a puzzle, what a surprising choice. I hope you enjoy Offshore if you get to it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My experience with this novella sounds fairly similar to Simon’s, based on the comments above. While I rate Penelope Fitzgerald extremely highly as a writer, I didn’t get quite as much out of this one as I’d hoped to after the brilliance of The Bookshop. That said, you’ve reminded me of just how much I can recall about the characters, which must be a good sign! I really ought to re-read it sometime. She writes these misfits who live of the fringes of society so well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really enjoyed this but I agree about The Bookshop – definitely my favourite of hers that I’ve read.

      She does write about misfits so well – never patronising or at an ironical distance. She’s very clear-sighted but compassionate too.

      I hope you enjoy the re-read if you get to it Jacqui!


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