In an earlier post I shared my first reactions to Offshore – the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald that won her the Man Booker Prize in 1979. She’s an author who has often been compared to D H Lawrence or Evelyn Waugh for her ability to depict the subtle interactions between her characters. Now I’ve finished the novel, I’m bemused by that comparison and even more puzzled why this one was considered worthy of the accolade particularly when there was such a strong contender on the short list in the form of V S Naipaul’s In a Free State.
Offshore never really got going for me. It felt as if Fitzgerald conceived the idea of a novel featuring a mixture of offbeat characters all of whom are at a turning point in their lives. Then to give it more appeal, she makes them live in houseboats in a less than desirable stretch of the River Thames. We trace their lives as they unravel or , in the case of one of the river dwellers, sink. But it’s difficult to engage with these characters or feel very interested in what happens to them because they are only sketchily depicted. Their eccentricities are not markedly eccentric, or even odd. The most interesting character for me was Maurice a male prostitute whose friendly nature is repeatedly taken advantage of who use his boat as a place to stash their stolen goods. But he is absent from the book for much of the time. Nenna, the central character, is a bohemian Canadian whose husband has left her and who is left quite literally struggling to keep things afloat. The scenes in which wanders shoeless through the streets of London late one night, are the most memorable. But it’s not enough to rescue the novel.
According to a quote from the Observer on the back of my copy, Offshore is ‘a novel of crisp originality, lucid and expressive with some splendid bursts of satire’. Would that it were so. For me, the narrative sank deeper and deeper into the mud of the Thames, occasionally bobbing up for air to fool readers into thinking that something would now actually happen, only to subside even further into the depths. The experience left me feeling I’d been cheated.