Monday, January 18, 2016

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

Eccentrics live on houseboats by the River Thames

Led by Richard, the upper class skipper of Lord Jim, the various houseboat owners in Battersea, maintain not very fixed lives. Nenna, an abandoned wife with two small daughters, lives on the Grace. Maurice, a charmer involved with various criminal enterprises, lives on the Maurice (name changed from the Dondeschiepolschuygen IV) and Willis, an optimistic retired painter, lives on the Dreadnought. Much of the nominal plot concerns a leak on the Dreadnought. The community rallies around Willis when he is injured, and Richard and Nenna form a closer bond when Nenna tracks down her loserish husband. The book ends inconclusively, as all the inhabitants appear headed for new destinies.

Exquisite is the operative word here (however condescending and sexist that term might be). However, this novel definitely is exquisite, packing a dozen characters into a slight number of pages, and composed of miniature scenes which deliver outsize pleasure. The tidal flows of the Thames are the real stars of this book, lifting flotsam and jetsam, moving the plot along, and providing a subject for beautiful flights of prose. The best part of this novel is the dialogue between Nenna’s daughters, the preternaturally responsible Martha and the irrepressible Tilda. Although only six, Tilda knows how to live.

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