Author: Penelope Fitzgerald
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1979)
I’ve tried several times to read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, which is widely considered her best work, but haven’t been able to get into it. Instead, I set it aside and picked up her novel Offshore, the winner of the 1979 Booker Prize. Set on a London houseboat docked on the Thames, the book is about Nenna James and her neighbors. Nenna lives on the Grace (throughout the novel, the occupants are sometimes called by their houseboat’s name) with her two daughters. Nenna is uncertain, disorganized, and in just as transitional a stage as her houseboat moored on the tidal Thames, caught between land and water.
For such a short novel, Offshore contains a complexity of ideas and characters. Fitzgerald has a lot to say about life and decisions without offering concrete answers. She portrays characters who don’t quite fit in, misfits who lack something that their more successful peers have. Nenna has been living apart from her husband, who refuses to join her on the Grace. The Dreadnought is slowly sinking. Maurice, which has the same name as the boat’s occupant, houses one of Nenna’s closest friends. The most capable person is Richard, occupant of the Lord Jim, who tries to organize a fundraiser for the Dreadnought and whose wife dislikes living on a houseboat.
There’s a certain feeling of mismatching at play here. The characters have married the wrong people, have ended up in the wrong place, have held on for too long to a leaking houseboat. These are all people who have moved onto the Thames in order to escape something on land, but none of them have quite managed to get their lives stabilized to living on water. The main conflict of the novel centers around Nenna and her attempts to organize her life. She finds it difficult to make plans for the future and would prefer to have someone else make the decisions for her. Although her children seem wise beyond their years, her husband is just as uncertain as she is, and it seems that she has no one to help her adjust to solid ground.
I read, I think it was in the introduction, that Fitzgerald once lived on a houseboat on the Thames. Another author who hadn’t experienced it might have glamorized such a life, but Fitzgerald presents it in all its dreary, leaky reality. For a novel that is so much about uncertainty, it seems fitting that it ends in an uncertain way. Without giving anything away, Fitzgerald chose to leave her characters in a place where everything is truly still in flux. Nothing is really decided. Fitzgerald seems to be telling the reader that much of life exists in that space, neither onshore yet not at sea, where it can be difficult to decide with any realistic idea of the eventual consequences. This novel was one of the most unique I’ve read recently, and I’m excited to find more of Fitzgerald’s work.