by Stephen Tall on October 5, 2016
Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald
This is the third novel plucked from my my #40booksby40 list. Fitzgerald’s been on my should-read list for ages. A Booker Prize-winner (beating Naipaul, Keneally) whose first book was published when she was 58, recently biographed by Hermione Lee, but still a little out of fashion (most of my friends looked blank when I mentioned her).
Offshore is a surprise, both good and bad. Good because it’s a quick, enjoyable read (just 140 pages). Its central character is Nessa, a 30-ish mum of two precociously articulate daughters, estranged from her husband and living on a leaky barge with a small group of other esoteric houseboat-dwellers in a then-still-grim part of Kensington and Chelsea in the early ’60s. All are misfitish characters, the awkwardness of their lives captured by their abodes: not quite on dry land, not quite all at sea. Fitzgerald’s trope is taut, sparse writing and she conjures an intriguing cast and crew.
But then (and this is the bad thing) it stops, abruptly. We never quite get what makes them tick. Even Nessa (who has the best scene when she defends her marital conduct to an imagined prosecuting magistrate) is under-sketched to the point where her behaviour is actually quite irritating. As for the others — in particular male prostitute Maurice and steady, dutiful Richard — they remain frustratingly out-of-reach.
In short: I liked it. But I wanted more of it. And, if I’m honest, felt a bit short-changed.