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!