Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald

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Another short novel from Fitzgerald, this is easily my favorite of her books so far. Set among a motley group of people living on barges on the Battersea Reach of the Thames, this Booker Prize-winning novel introduces us to the unfailingly affable Maurice, a young male prostitute; Willis, an elderly marine artist and former longshoreman; Richard, who presides over meetings of the boat owners with military precision learned in the Navy; and his dissatisfied wife Laura, who dreams of country estates.

The story mainly follows Nenna, a woman struggling to make a home for her two young daughters. As always, with Fitzgerald, the children are beautifully drawn. More of an adult than most girls her age, Martha tries to assert her practical knowledge of the world, while young Tilda knows only the boating life and what she’s learned from their neighbors. Tilda’s knowledge of tides and knots does not do her much good, though, since the barges never set sail, remaining moored with a complicated system of gangplanks between them.

This image of being neither on land nor at sea underpins the lives of the people on the barges. Nenna is neither married nor unmarried, her husband living in a flat in the city since returning from a job in South America and refusing to see her. The girls are neither in school nor out; they have been skipping school ever since the Sisters started making the other children pray for Martha and Tilda that their father would return. The characters sometimes stray onto the edges of the just-starting-to-explode social scene of early 1960s London, with its coffeebars and boutiques and new music, yet they are as outside of that scene as they are of Partisan Street near their moorings, with its physically damaged inhabitants.

All of the barges’ inhabitants live in the littoral, hanging onto the edge of survival. Willis is trying to sell his disastrously leaking barge. Richard does not understand why he is so drawn to life on the river, particularly in the face of his wife’s opposition. Maurice, who talks of selling his boat and going abroad, has long middle-of-the-night talks with Nenna. In one, he tells her:

“Decision is torment for anyone with imagination. When you decide, you multiply the things you might have done and now never can . . . They tell you, make up your mind or it will be too late, but if it’s really too late, we should be grateful.”

This fear of making a decision reminded me of reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as a teenager. The two courtiers—also on a boat, prey to shifting tides—try to work out what decision they made, not realising they were making one, that has led to their current predicament. I have always been afraid of making a wrong choice, some irrevocable decision that takes me down a dark tunnel. Making lists of pros and cons never works for me, because the outcome of my decisions never matches any of them. The decisions I make on the spur of the moment seem to work out better than those I labor over.

Fitzgerald uses an effective technique I’d not seen before to convey Nenna’s attempts to sort out what is going on with her husband and what she should do about it: “Nenna’s thoughts, whenever she was alone, took the form of a kind of perpetual magistrate’s hearing.” And then we get those thoughts, the relentless questioning by a magistrate who turns into a judge, her shifting attempts to explain and justify her actions. It’s brilliantly done. I recognised the tone of conversations I’ve had with myself, though I’ve never actually imagined myself in the witness box.

Fitzgerald is often quite funny. Her humor comes from the absurdity of life’s situations and some of its people. However, she doesn’t satirise those whom Hermione Lee, in her biography of Fitzgerald, calls “characters at odds with their world: the depressive, the shy, the unworldly, the emotionally inarticulate.” Instead, Fitzgerald treats them with compassion and respect. In an essay called “Why I Write”, she says:

I am drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost. They are ready to assume the conditions the world imposes on them, but they don’t manage to submit to them, despite their courage and their best efforts. They are not envious, simply compassless. When I write it is to give these people a voice.

I think this assertion is beautiful and a good part of why I love her books.

What decision have you made that didn’t turn out the way you expected?

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