The characters in Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore live in a world in between, on a colony of barges in the Battersea Reach on the Thames. For one reason or another, they don’t quite fit into the community on land, but they aren’t quite able to strike out and cut themselves off completely. So they create an unlikely little community amongst themselves, with its own customs, expectations, and structure.
In the first half of this little 140-page book, we get to know the characters and their community. We see how they rely on one another, and how they get on one another’s nerves. We meet Richard of the Lord Jim, who likes to keep his boat in perfect working condition, even if his marriage is not. We meet Nenna, who bought Grace as a home for her and her daughters, Martha and Tilda, when her husband was out the country, only to find that her husband was unwilling to live in such an unconventional manner. And then there’s Stripey, ship’s cat on the Grace, whom Fitzgerald describes here with the humor and attention to detail that is typical of Offshore:
Through years of attempting to lick herself clean, for she had never quite lost her self-respect, Stripey had become as thickly coated with mud inside as out. She was in a perpetual process of readjustment, not only to tides and seasons, but to the rats she encountered on the wharf. Up to a certain size, that is to say the size attained by the rats at a few weeks old, she caught and ate them, and, with a sure instinct for authority, brought in their tails to lay them at the feet of Martha. Any rats in excess of this size chased Stripey. The resulting uncertainty as to whether she was coming or going had made her, to some extent, mentally unstable.
The first half of the book has no plot to speak of. Instead, we get portraits of the characters and glimpses of their daily lives, as well as a few minor trials. Starting at about the halfway point, several characters reach a crisis point. Events within their little community, or from the world outside, force them to take new and sometimes unexpected paths. And the final moments of the book, well, let’s just say that the ending is as bold an ending as I’ve seen in anything I’ve read recently.
I liked the quirky people of Battersea Reach. Fitzgerald describes them with sensitivity, honesty, and humor, and I was drawn into their little community. Fitzgerald doesn’t beat her readers over the head with judgments and opinions about her characters and their world. She just tells their stories.
This was my first Fitzgerald, and it was a good one for me. I’ve seen Fitzgerald’s name mentioned on a lot of blogs, but I’ve not seen much about this particular book (which is a surprise, because it’s the one that won the Booker). I’m curious about how it compares to her other books. Any Fitzgerald fans care to enlighten me? Which of her books do you like best?
Because Offshore won the 1979 Booker Prize, it qualifies for the Book Awards II Challenge, which leaves me with only one book left.