Saturday, July 28, 2012

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Thames barges, built of living wood that gave and sprang back in the face of the wind, were as much at home as anything on the river.  To their creaking and grumbling was added a new note, comparable to music.  As the tide rose, the wind shredded the clouds above them and pushed a mighty swell across the water, so that they began to roll as they had once rolled at sea.

Nenna James lives on a houseboat, the Grace, docked at Battersea Reach, London, purchased without the knowledge of her husband, who refuses to come and live on it, too.  Her children, Tilda and Martha, are there, growing up amid the strange and motley collection of people who decide to live on houseboats: Willis, the old painter, who lives on the Dreadnought; Richard, who lives on the Lord Jim; Maurice, the prostitute who lives on the Maurice.

Their lives, like their boats, are in various states of disrepair.  Some, like Nenna's husband Edward and Richard's wife Laura, cannot understand the appeal of living on a houseboat, especially those which never sail.  They are a kind of liminal place, existing between worlds, which perhaps explains the motivations of those who love them as well as those who don't:

[Nenna said,] 'But, you know, by myself I can't make my mind up.'

'You shouldn't do it at all.'

'Why not, Maurice?'

'Why should you think it's a good thing to do?  Why should it make you any happier?  There isn't one kind of happiness, there's all kinds.  Decision is torment for anyone with imagination.  When you decide, you multiply the things you might have done and now never can.  If there's even one person who might be hurt by a decision, you should never make it.  They tell you, make up your mind or it will be too late, but if it's really too late, we should be grateful.  You know very well that we're two of the same kind, Nenna.  It's right for us to live where we do, between land and water.  You, my dear, you're half in love with your husband, then there's Martha who's half a child and half a girl, Richard who can't give up being half in the Navy, Willis who's half an artist and half a longshoreman, a cat who's half alive and half dead...'

He stopped before describing himself, if, indeed, he had been going to do so.

Fitzgerald's work has such an elegant simplicity; that's one of the things I like best about her.  (Offshore clocks in under 50,000 words.)  The other things I like about her: One, she didn't publish her first novel until she was 60, and won the Booker Prize for Offshore when she was 63.  Nice to know not everyone has to be Ned Beauman.

Two, she has a real knack for detail; Offshore, like The Blue Flower, slim as it is, offers up a couple dozen minor but wonderfully expressive, crystalline moments.  There is, for example, the moment when Nenna goes to see her estranged husband, accidentally announcing herself at the door as Grace.  Or when she, lost in the rain miles from Battersea without her purse for busfare, is accosted by a man as she leans over to fix her shoe.  For a moment it seems as if we are going to witness a sexual assault; instead he takes her shoe and throws it into the road.  Or when Maurice adorns the deck of his boat with flagstones and an antique lamp to make it look like a Venetian street corner.  Such details are minor, and often silly, but together they manage to create a vital sense of reality with a minimum of fuss.

It's a testament to Fitzgerald's skill and restraint that she grew up in a houseboat community like the one in the novel, and yet decided not to pile everything she knew about it into one massive tome.  Offshore lacks the rounded totality of The Blue Flower, and seems more like a single slice, randomly chosen, of the life of a peculiar community.  My greatest misgiving, then, is that I wish it had been a little longer.

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