Offshore Penelope Fitzgerald 1979

This is the fourth book by Fitzgerald that I’ve read, and it has established her as one of my favorite British authors of the 20th C.  She’s a fascinating woman who didn’t begin writing until her 60th birthday after her husband had died and she had raised her children, at least in part on a houseboat in the Thames, the setting for this 1979 Booker Prize winning novel.  She writes with a deeply detailed and empathetic view of people, reminiscent of a recent essay by Leslie Jamieson about her examination and interest in the people she passes on the road in which she cites Whitman and Woolf.

In this novel, we meet the occupants of five decrepit, aging barges tied up at Battersea Reach on a section of the Thames that has fallen on hard times.  Willis is an aging artist whose seascapes have sold well despite his never having been to sea and whose boat, the Dreadnought, proves to be sinkable.  Woodie, Maurice, Richard, and Nenna are the other bargees, and the latter and her two wonderfully drawn daughters are the main actors in this novel about how life just moves along in unpredictable and sometimes tragic ways. The characters are wonderfully drawn; the plot is credible and moves along with numerous sub-plots weaving together nicely; the ending leaves one hanging—-just right.  But the highlight for me is Fitzgerald’s writing which rivals James Salter in it beauty.  Here’s just one sentence:  “The Bourgeois Gentlehomme was one of many enterprises in Chelsea which survived entirely by selling antiques to one another.”  Clever, funny, perfectly timed.  She’s a gem.

Fitzgerald’s work has recently been rediscovered and new editions of her books have been published by Mariner Books.  This volume has a fine introduction by the British novelist Alan Hollinghurst which provides a good background for Fitzgerald’s work.

Highly recommended but if you haven’t discovered her yet, I’d start with the historical novel, The Blue Flower.