No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, January 03, 2011

2011/01: Offshore -- Penelope Fitzgerald

The barge-dwellers, creatures of neither firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible aspirations and adequate amounts of money. 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. (p.10)
Offshore examines, askance, the lives of a ragtag assortment of people living on barges and houseboats in the shadow of Battersea Power Station. It's 1961 and, on land, Swinging London is just kicking off. Tilda and Martha (six and twelve years of age) mudlark for de Morgan tiles to fuel their Elvis habit. Their mother, Nenna, waits for her husband to see sense and abandon his Stoke Newington bedsit to join them on the Grace.

When Nenna can't sleep, she sits up with Maurice (whose income derives from picking up men in the local pub, and possibly from selling on some of the stolen goods left on his boat by the nefarious Henry) and they put the world to rights. Richard, the closest to a leader that the boat-owners have, is ex-Navy and determined to keep things shipshape: Although he tried hard to do so, Richard could never see how anyone could live without things in working order (p.18). His wife Laura is not content with life on the rolling Thames. Once-successful marine artist Willis would just like to patch over the leaks long enough to sell his boat and live ashore with his sister.

But Nenna and her precocious daughters are the focal point of the novel. How does Nenna make ends meet? What will become of Tilda and Martha if the nuns don't stop praying for them? (The nuns' prayers are presently a bone of contention.) Will Edward return to his family? What, exactly, is the nature of his arrangement with his housemates in Stoke Newington? (I think this is alluded to, subtly and quietly, in the final scene.)

Offshore is a very funny, and quietly profound, novel -- novella, perhaps; it's under 50,000 words -- and though the ending feels abrupt, it settles after reading into a strange equilibrium. The boatowners are not precisely Bohemian, but they've turned their backs, one way or another, on shore life. Even Nenna's cat, Stripey -- who can only prey on rats below a certain size: the larger ones chase her -- is a quintessential ship's cat: in every way appropriate to the Reach. She habitually moved in a kind of nautical crawl, with her stomach close to the deck, as though close-furled and ready for dirty weather (p.29). Everyone's adrift, everyone's reaching for a lifeline, and a storm is coming.

My parents met in a similar community, at a similar time, just upriver at Strand-on-the-Green. It's strange how much of the novel seemed familiar to me from their anecdotes.

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