Offshore – Penelope Fitzgerald

Published in 1979, “Offshore” is Penelope Fitzgerald’s fifth published work and third novel, and surprising (and rather controversially) beat William Golding’s “Darkness Visible” and V.S. Naipaul’s “A Bend in the River” , two masterful novels in the same year, to win the Booker Prize. Not mind-blowing powerful and ostentatiously remarkable, “Offshore” rose above the rest with its delicate, elegant and quiet charm, wit and beauty. The central theme, personal relationships within a small group of people who are neighbours in a special way, is described vividly and lively through strokes of a keen and deep observer. In this novel, characters from different backgrounds with different troubles and personalities come together. There is Maurice, a male prostitute who unconditionally supports an acquaintance named Harry; there is Richard who appears right from the start as a respected veteran to whom people look up; there is Willis, an old painter and widower living quietly with his retired life; there is Nenna who seems lost and powerless with her marriage, which is the only thing she has ever failed to rescue even with her instinct to fix people’s unhappiness, while raising two daughters, Martha, thirteen, and Tilda, six, whose precocity adds another aspect to the group of eccentric characters here. Along with them, Laura, Richard’s wife and James, Nenna’s estranged husband, are part of the unstable lifestyle that they all share. Living offshore on boats with the waves and tides of the Thames is never an easy thing, and their lives are covered with a worrisome like no other, yet they still maintain the admirable compassion for one another. The themes of friendship, compassion, sympathy, liminality, pursuit of happiness, family responsibilities, sacrifices, love and the fight for important things in one’s life are all intertwined on the fluctuating waves of the restless river.

Much like getting only sections and incomplete parts of one’s story but being able to string clues together and infer an intriguing journey, readers are abroad with the characters on their respective dwellings – boats along the bank of Thames, to join the journey with them. The oddity of their homes alone leads to the eccentricity in their lifestyles, their relationships with one another, and their unique problems. The most outstanding and memorable part of this novel is the circumstance and milieu in which the story develops. It is rare and remarkable occasion that a novel pays attention to this group people deemed outcasts or runaways and showing the beauty of their relationships. They forget their own problems to aid each other through the difficulty of not just living conditions but also social issues arising from their lifestyle. A meeting is summoned immediately when “Dreadnought” shows signs of leaking so everyone in the neighbourhood can give a hand in solving the problem. Maurice takes the time after his working nights to listen to Nenna’s sorrow and pain of fighting desperately for her husband. Willis takes care of Nenna’s daughters voluntarily; it seems like it is his instinct to make sure they are safe. Other people even think he is their grandfather, and the three of them accept the roles naturally and even delightedly, especially through Tilda’s caring words, characterized with such warmth and innocent compassion, “Dear grandfather, are you sure you are not weary? Let us return to our ship. Take my arm, for though I am young, I am strong”. Readers realize they have all become family members and are touched by the nature of such precious ties between neighbours who are only separated by a step above the water from boat to boat.

The care and sympathy they have for one another are important as they have to face difficulties with the offshore lifestyle. Troubles from the essentials like boat leaks and safety abroad to larger, invisible issues like relationships, marriage, children’s education and earning a living, arise everyday and they only have each other to rely on, especially with how the remainder of the society, and even the spouses of some dwellers, disapprove with their choice of living. Postmen refuse to climb over the dangerous planks to deliver letters and telephone becomes a scarcity with only one for the entire five boats. It is much harder to cope with the limited life and people’s emotions are affected consequently. Laura, for example, tries to hide her unhappiness of living away from the central of the town and left alone with nothing to do on the boat, but in the end still gives up and leaves her husband. The most important emotional damage is depicted in Nenna’s marriage with Edward, who refuses forcefully to live with her on the boat. Her love for him could not overcome his disapproval of her home. However, feeling much attached to “Grace”, her boat, and knowing how much her children enjoy the water and the secluded life offshore, her only way of dealing with the problem is to hope and beg for his return. Their love is separated by a difference so deep and crucial that even their need for one another cannot reunite them. The theme of love prevented by an obstacle appears in this novel subtly and quietly, disguised by the seemingly culpable stubborn of a powerless wife.

Their marriage also highlighted the theme of happiness. Fitzgerald intelligently included a witty passage conveying her opinion on people’s pursuit of happiness in the middle of the setting for the story, where readers least expected it. It is not a premature introduction of such an important theme, however, because as the story unfolds, her statements are even further described through people’s choices and actions. “Why should you think [going away] is a good thing to do? Why should it make you any happier?” We fool ourselves sometimes with the hope that giving up on something difficult would make us satisfied. “There isn’t one kind of happiness, there’s all kinds.” The key to happiness is how we handle our decisions in life. “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.” Decisions affect happiness directly and learning how to make them is our pursuit of happiness; and that is never so easy. Fitzgerald understands this and sympathizes with people who are unhappy because they are stuck in between decisions, reluctant to leave or stay, “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 […]”

She observes the transition, the moment where things exists half on this side and half on this side and describes them so stunningly readers might have to pause and realize for themselves how common it is, “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.” There is nothing wrong with being in between; the transition is always inevitable, yet we commonly fail to realize this and blame people who are stuck there for being reluctant, waffling or indecisive. The metaphor of these ‘half-land-half-water’ dwellers represents a larger scale of people out there, mixed between feelings, or going through different stages, or just experiencing changes in their lives. That moment of liminality occurs to everyone at some point, which is why, after the initial seemingly eccentricity of the setting of “Offshore”, readers can relate slowly to the internal conflicts of these characters.  

Penelope Fitzgerald, by creating her own fiction of this special group of people, also describes a small community with much love and care. It would be such a fortunate thing to have neighbours like Mr. and Mrs. Woodies, who would extend a welcoming support to Willis when his boat sank. They were all ready and packed to leave the boat, but happily stayed to help him after his mishap accident. Willis, Maurice, Mr. Woodies and even young Heinrich who was only visiting, all showed such kindness by taking care of Nenna’s daughters while she went to find her husband to make things right. Even the girls, Martha and Tilda, showed exceptional responsibility and intuitive care with the way they helped and rescued the injured and near-dead Richard. Even to Stripey, Nenna’s cat, the neighbours gave great care, especially when she gave birth on the “Rochester”. That closeness of the micro community created an invisible warmth throughout the novel, despite the setting on the cold river.

 With a descriptive and slow-paced writing style, Penelope Fitzgerald took her time and stretched her readers’ patience a little bit to present a collection of a few people’s life stories as they struggle with life on the bank of the Thames. Her elegant descriptions of the sceneries and poetic lines brought a calm and warm mood to her novel. It is a delight indulging and letting myself follow the mishap, melancholic but also lively and loving footsteps of these characters as they search for what they want in life. Deep inside every boat, Rochester, Dreadnought, Grace or Lord Jim, there is a sadness, worry, sorrow, conflict etc., hidden carefully and are often neglected if the outsider does not bother to look harder and feel for them. The novel is a gentle reminder that there are stories about people’s struggles and conflicts to achieve happiness out there worth discovering. Happiness is a universal goal and one way to achieve it is to share, relate and care for each other the way these characters do. The simplest stories can depict the most important themes of life; the most ordinary people can go through the untold and silent extraordinary journeys that bring them closer to home, love and happiness. It is a delight at the end of the day, to read about such small, quaint and easy to relate to stories, and feel warm and assured that we can open our hearts and care for others, like Martha and Tilda, or Willis. It is also surprising in the end to recognize how easy it is to get lost in a novel and return to reality with new feelings and hopes. The power of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel lies in her ability to make us sympathize with people we do not know, we are not familiar with, yet still showing such admirable characteristics of helping each other survive and look forward to better endings.