Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald--a review


Eccentrics Afloat might be my subtitle for this lovely little novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. I don't mean to be disparaging when I say little, it's just that it's a short book, and minimalist in the plot department. But it's truly rich in atmosphere, and brilliant in its characterizations.

In Offshore, Fitzgerald tells the story of a group of people who have chosen, for one reason or another, to live aboard boats at Battersea Reach on the Thames. The story mostly revolves around the unsettled and slightly hapless Nenna, who lives aboard the boat "Grace" with her two daughters, Martha, 12, and six-year-old Tilda. Nenna feels her life is falling apart--her two daughters aren't going to school, and her husband won't come to live with them on Grace, though Nenna wants him to. Nenna confides her heartache to another boat-dweller, male prostitute Maurice, another hapless soul, who stores stolen goods on his boat for a sinister friend. Nenna is also drawn to Richard, an ex-soldier who is now a successful businessman, whose wife Laura is bored and really wants to live somewhere on dry land. Richard runs the only shipshape ship around, and seems an unlikely denizen of Battersea Reach. They all try to help another barge dweller, Willis, an aging marine artist whose barge Dreadnought is sinking, and who wants to sell and retire to a cottage with his sister. All of these people are neither here nor there--they live afloat, but their boats go nowhere, and of course it's the perfect metaphor for their lives, which are all in some degree of disarray.

The story is amazingly tight and compact, with most of the action occurring in the last few pages of the book. The beginning is taken up with what seem at first to be Fitzgerald's leisurely observations about life on board the boats, but I realize turns out to be deep and delicate character development, too. It's the kind of character development that sneaks up on you--you realize that you have formed a perfect mental picture of these people, you know who they are, after mere pages, and it might have taken other writers reams to get you there. As Julian Barnes says of a certain short scene in Fitzgerald's work, "it expands into something much larger in the memory." That's what happens in this book--Barnes has it exactly right--it expands into something much larger in my memory.

The almost abrupt ending holds a few surprises, which I won't give away here, and which made the whole thing worthwhile for me. I also found surprises in the writing itself--Fitzgerald has such a way with language, and her occasional bursts of humor and vivid descriptions often made me stop and read them again. Now I get why this won the Booker Prize, and I understand why people love Penelope Fitzgerald. I'll be sure to read her other works...soon!

P.S. Logophile just sent me a link to a great article about Penelope Fitzgerald in the Guardian, by Julian Barnes. Thank you so much, Logophile! Worth reading because it really illuminates Fitzgerald's personality and her writing life. It also makes me want to read The Blue Flower (which I have sitting on my shelf) next, as Barnes says it should have won the Booker instead of Offshore. The article is also a review of So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, which now goes onto my list!

11 comments:

heather (errantdreams) said...

I absolutely adore good character development, and can forgive so many other shortcomings as long as it's present!

Melange said...

Hello there. I just wanted to say I found your blog through a blog ring and had to tell you how much I enjoyed it. I'll be adding you to my blog roll now.

Thanks so much for having such an awesome blog!

litlove said...

I do love Penelope Fitzgerald and this is one I haven't read. I've heard it's supposed to be among her best! Lovely review.

Logophile said...

Great review - Fitzgerald is one of those authors that seems to be popping up all over the place at the moment (I've not read any of her books...yet!). You might like this article by Julian Barnes about Fitzgerald in last Saturday's Guardian Review http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/jul/26/fiction

Gentle Reader said...

heather--I feel the same way--give me good characters and I'll read about them, doesn't matter what they're doing!

melange--so glad you found me! Thanks so much for the link!

litlove--I have several more of Fitzgerald's novels on my shelf, so I'll let you know what I think when I get to them!

logophile--I found Fitzgerald through bloggers--had never heard of her before I started blogging, then, as you say, she was popping up all over the place! I'll go check out that article (love Julian Barnes, btw)--thanks for the link!

Table Talk said...

There have been a number of articles the the UK press about Fitzgerald over the past few weeks to coincide with the publication of her letters, (which is high on my wish list as well) and they've prompted me to go back and re-read her. I've just picked up 'The Golden Child', her first novel, from the library. It's only available in large print - they've ditched all their other stock. Can you imagine, a great writer like this and they don't see her back catalogue as worth holding!

Lisa said...

I have this one at home. I picked it up at a used bookshop after reading The Bookshop by Fitzgerald. I need to make time to read it. Character development and setting are really important for me when reading. Nothing major really need happen at all. It's the interior life that I'm the most fascinated with.

Jessica said...

I haven't read any Penelope Fitzgerald, but I need to check her out. Do you have a favorite?

Gentle Reader said...

table talk--that's just sad that her books aren't readily available--you're right! I'd like to read The Golden Child, too...

lisa--me too--it's all about the interior life :) I've heard great things about The Bookshop. After the Blue Flower, it's the one I'd like to read next.

jessica--Offshore is the first of Fitzgerald's novels that I've read, and I enjoyed it. People also say really good things about The Blue Flower, which I'm planning to read next. And I've also heard really good things about The Bookshop. So that should get you started!

kamagra said...

I must start off by saying that the late Penelope Fitzgerald deserved the literary accolades showered upon her. This is the first book that I have read by Fitzgerald and I must admit that it was not what I was expecting. Knowing that this book had won the distinguished Booker Prize, I settled into it with high expectations.

Anonymous said...

can someone tell me what happen at the end? i am kind of confused of what has happened to maurice and edward. thanks!