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Offshore

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Richard, perhaps the only successful person among them, insists on living on Lord Jim even though he could afford to move on land. The river community's life has wealthy, efficient, upper class, generous, decent, chivalrous Richard at its hub, and Nenna is so focussed on her broken marriage that she can barely care for her daughters, who fortunately are more than capable of picking up the slack.

There was no reason for my doing this – I don’t believe that books that win big prizes are necessarily any more worthy than any others. This is a series of vignettes involving a somewhat close-knit "community" of boat-dwellers and various of their land-living relations/friends/contacts. Richard invites Nenna for a romantic night-time trip in his dinghy in his characteristic way: '“We could go up under Wandsworth Bridge as far as the Fina Oil Depot and then switch off and drift down with the tide”' Without any discussion they spend the night together. There is one character who made this book work for me, and it is Nenna’s 6-year old daughter, Tilda.But if Edward does not want to live on Grace, why doesn't Nenna sell up and go to live with him instead?

He told the sombre truths of the light-hearted, betraying in a casual hour what was never intended to be shown. The storm is described with telling detail, in the streets and on the river – police boats and tugs warning the boat dwellers. In a conversation between a sixth-form age boy and an eleven-year-old developing a crush on him (the one part of the book which would be frowned on today), Fitzgerald's 1995 historical novel The Blue Flower is prefigured: "you are like the blonde mistress of Heine, the poet Heine, wenig Fleisch, sehr viel Gemüt, little body, but so much spirit’.Meanwhile, Martha gets friendly with a 16-year old German, Heinrich, staying for 24 hours, as a friend of a friend of Nenna's sister. It even has the occasional inadvertantly amusing double-entendre that adds entertainment value to many vintage books. It takes a certain kind of person to live on a houseboat on the Thames, and with the help of Fitzgerald’s rich prose, it’s a pretty engrossing kind, too. We look at the inhabitants of five neighboring boats and several individuals not living on the boats but closely tied to the boat inhabitants. It is a novel and not a memoir, so I suppose one can't read too much into it, but while peopled by quirky characters and a kind of camaraderie, it sounds like it was pretty grim.

Even at the end of this short novel, like the water of an approaching storm, these lovable people of the water are unsettled. I'm well-educated and I've got two children and I can manage pretty well, there's a number of much more essential things I know how to do, but I can't do those ones, and when they come up I feel like weeping myself sick. Meanwhile, Edward comes looking for Nenna, but ends up drinking with Maurice, before trying to board Nenna's barge (she's not in, because of the storm) and possibly falling into the cold and turbulent waters. A mile and a half down Green Lanes, half a mile down Nassington (sic) Green Road, one and a half miles the wrong way down Balls Pond Road, two miles down Kingsland Road, and then she was lost”.Indeed, a cross between classic chick-lit and Andersonian whimsy might read just like this, if it were written by a genius who had experienced actual poverty. For who else would get so much into just 181 pages, making it the ideal companion to a trip where every gramme of weight counted since I was carrying the necessary over hill and dale myself? Offshore" sounds glamorous, like shady bank accounts, but it’s not glamorous when Penelope Fitzgerald gets her hands on it. However, the Thames barges here are strikingly less watertight than the Bells’ Blackbird in The Water Gipsies.

I can think of a few Goodreads friends who would like it for that reason, too, though these same friends are apt to like it for more than just that. I do however find it fascinating each year when the Booker long list and short list are announced - what has made it on, how are these things chosen? Sometimes it leads to an impulsive decision (which I may or may not regret), other times I try to pass the decision to someone else, or just avoid making it altogether. It wasn't clear to me until later in the book that this book was likely set in the late 1960s, which also made the seeming squalor on the river all the more real.An exquisite little novel in which not much happens until the end, and yet, due to storms of all kinds, the whole world of each protagonist changes irrevocably. But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway'. I feel I should be able to learn from this beautiful book, but it suggests diagnosis (which I'd already worked out), but no prescription. Described by the Guardian as, ‘one the most distinctive and elegant voices in contemporary British fiction’, Penelope Fitzgerald was one of the twentieth-century’s most acclaimed British novelists. Page after page, this is a miraculous book, miraculous in its genial understanding of character, doubly miraculous in its powers of description.

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