Offshore

Overtly quirky characters and settings are a risky move for a novelist: some writers make the mistake of substituting a short list of quirks for actual and substantial development of character and place, which leaves a book with nowhere to go once the initial surprise and novelty have worn off. Penelope Fitzgerald‘s Booker Prize-winning 1979 novel Offshore definitely flirts with this kind of danger: it centers around the lives of a handful of eccentrics who live on repurposed barges anchored on the Battersea Reach of the Thames. Fitzgerald’s first smart decision is to make the book very short: at under 150 pages, the unusual setting remains fresh and surprising right up until the end. But more importantly, Fitzgerald also expends considerable effort to make the setting come to life: she describes what it’s like to prepare food in the boats’ cramped kitchen quarters, and the ways in which life changes for their residents with the daily ebb and flow of the tides, and the way the children sift through mud in search of valuable trinkets and scrap lost to decades-old shipwrecks. Fitzgerald also gives the culture of the people living on the boats real attention: she offers details like the residents’ habit of calling each other by the names of their boats, and also shows the ways in which the tolerance and insularity of their small community lends its members the freedom and strength to each live their individual lives as they please, even in the face of constant social and economic pressure from the outside world to adopt more conventional lifestyles. Offshore never indulges in eccentricities purely for the sake of eccentricity, or for surface entertainment and distraction; the book is largely about what it means to be a nonconformist, and is particularly interested in the idea that nonconformists cannot easily thrive without the support of some kind of community.

Offshore also succeeds by virtue of its warm heart; Fitzgerald often gently pokes fun of her characters for their eccentricities, but always in the context of genuine affection. Further, the book is extremely funny, and all of its humor rises naturally from character and situation. Fitzgerald doesn’t resort to forced punchlines or comic exaggeration—she takes her characters seriously as people, and the laughs come from their very human interpersonal conflicts and predicaments. But for all its humor and warmth, the book is also far from lighthearted, and doesn’t indulge in sugarcoating or unrealistically happy outcomes. Most of the novel’s characters are quite poor, and consequently, their freedom and their community are fragile. You come to love the people of Batterea Reach—and when their lifestyle becomes seriously threatened, it seems both inevitable and deeply sad.

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