On the Battersea Reach of the Thames, a mixed bag of eccentrics live in houseboats. Belonging to neither land nor sea, they belong to one another. There is Maurice, a homosexual prostitute; Richard, a buttoned-up ex-navy man; but most of all there’s Nenna, the struggling mother of two wild little girls. How each of their lives complicates the others is the stuff of this perfect little novel.
Offshore possesses perfect, very odd pitch. In just over 130 pages of the wittiest and most melancholy prose, Penelope Fitzgerald limns the lives of “creatures neither of firm land nor water”–a group of barge-dwellers in London’s Battersea Reach, circa 1961. One man, a marine artist whose commissions have dropped off since the war, is attempting to sell his decrepit craft before it sinks. Another, a dutiful businessman with a bored, mutinous wife, knows he should be landlocked but remains drawn to the muddy Thames. A third, Maurice, a male prostitute, doesn’t even protest when a criminal acquaintance begins to use his barge as a depot for stolen goods: “The dangerous and the ridiculous were necessary to his life, otherwise tenderness would overwhelm him.” At the center of the novel–winner of the 1979 Booker Prize–are Nenna and her truant six- and 11-year-old daughters. The younger sibling “cared nothing for the future, and had, as a result, a great capacity for happiness.” But the older girl is considerably less blithe. “Small and thin, with dark eyes which already showed an acceptance of the world’s shortcomings,” Fitzgerald writes, she “was not like her mother and even less like her father. The crucial moment when children realise that their parents are younger than they are had long since been passed by Martha.” Their father is farther afield. Unable to bear the prospect of living on the Grace, he’s staying in Stoke Newington, part of London but a lost world to his wife and daughters. Meanwhile, Nenna spends her time going over incidents that seem to have led to her current situation, and the matter of some missing squash racquets becomes of increasing import. Though she is peaceful by nature, experience and poverty are wearing Nenna down. Her confidante Maurice, after a momentary spell of optimism, also returns to his life of little expectation and quiet acceptance: “Tenderly responsive to the self-deceptions of others, he was unfortunately too well able to understand his own.” Penelope Fitzgerald views her creations with deep but wry compassion. Having lived on a barge herself, she offers her expert spin on the dangers, graces, and whimsies of river life. Nenna, too, has become a savant, instantly recognizing on one occasion that the mud encasing the family cat is not from the Reach. This “sagacious brute” is almost as complex as his human counterparts, constantly forced to adjust her notions of vermin and authority. Though Stripey is capable of catching and killing very young rats, the older ones chase her. “The resulting uncertainty as to whether she was coming or going had made her, to some extent, mentally unstable.” As always, Fitzgerald is a master of the initially bizarre juxtaposition. Adjacent sentences often seem like delightful non sequiturs–until they flash together in an effortless evocation of character, era, and human absurdity. Nenna recalls, for instance, how the buds had dropped off the plant her husband rushed to the hospital when Martha was born. She “had never criticized the bloomless azalea. It was the other young mothers in the beds each side of her who had laughed at it. That had been 1951. Two of the new babies in the ward had been christened Festival.” Tiny comical epiphanies such as these have caused the author to be dubbed a “British miniaturist.” Yet the phrase utterly misses the risks Fitzgerald’s novellas take, the discoveries they make, and the endless pleasures they provide. –Kerry Fried