‘A marvellous achievement… human, generous and graceful.’Sunday Times

‘A novel of crisp originality, lucid and expressive with some splendid bursts of satire.’The Observer


Fitzgerald, P. (1979) Offshore Collins ISBN 978 0 00 732096 7

Penelope Fitzgerald has been compared variously to DH Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh and Martin Amis. Her admirers are drawn to Fitzgerald’s sparseness of expression and her ability to trace the subtle social interactions between disparate characters, who often work or live together in small, offbeat communities.

Offshore, which won the Booker prize in 1979, showcases her talent as a miniaturist. It tells the story of a group of gentle eccentrics who live on riverboats moored on the Thames. The action is centred on Nenna, a bohemian Canadian expat whose husband has left her and who is left quite literally struggling to keep things afloat.

The landscape reflects the fortunes of its inhabitants – the characters feel with each tide “the patches, strains and gaps in their craft, as if they were weak places in their own bodies”, and when Nenna attempts a disastrous reconciliation with her husband, there is a predictably violent storm. Fitzgerald is adept at evoking the atmosphere of late 1960s London with rich period detail but beyond this the book feels slight and inconclusive, meandering along with only the sketchiest plot. Novels that concentrate on the minutiae of behaviour at the expense of a rip-roaring narrative can be tremendously successful, but only if the reader truly cares about the characters. I found myself unsympathetically disposed to almost everyone in Offshore, especially the whimsical Nenna, who seems to believe her self-indulgent life is terribly hard.

I am sure the fault is entirely mine but Offshore left me feeling rather like I had spent several hours on a draughty barge: cold and with dampened enthusiasm for the whole experience.

The Observer 06.12.09 http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/dec/06/offshore-penelope-fitzgerald-book-review

Offshore is one of Penelope Fitzgerald’s finest novels, it tells the story of a group of Londoners living on houseboats on the Chelsea Reach in the 1960s.

It’s a precious jewel of a book, one I truly enjoyed – though did feel confused by – was it the last half of a bittersweet love story, or the middle third of a happy one?

At just 180 pages Fitzgerald perhaps inevitably thrusts us into the story, it’s almost taken as read that we somehow know the characters already; indeed so much is left unsaid. There is more hinted at between the lines and in the resonances of delicious descriptions than is explicitly stated on the page The result is not bad characters, but enigmatic ones; not a weak story – far from it – but an ambiguous one, where implications are so subtle that you’re left wondering what it actually all means.

From the cold, mist and mud of the Thames a finely wrought story of jealousy and doom surfaces.

If I have a quibble with the book it’s a small one, because what makes Offshore imperfect and slightly frustrating is its brevity. Although all the characters are precisely defined and the story line never deviates away from it’s path, it feels as if we never get as close to the characters as they deserve, it feels an almost wasteful or wilful act on the part of the author. Couldn’t so much more have been done with them? Or is this what makes the novella what it is – a perfect fragment? One that leaves you wanting more? Perhaps that’s no bad thing after all?


Further Reading:



3 thoughts on “Book Review: Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

  1. The 1979 Booker judges, 36 years’ worth of enchanted readers, and various publishers in the US and UK who continue publishing edition after edition (I spotted spanking new editions just last week in my local Los Angeles bookshop, not to mention the raft – ahem – of copies I noticed at Foyles and Waterstones on my last trip back to London), give the lie to your opinion.
    Really, it’s a magnificent and enduring work and it’s always depressing when one treasures a book, only to find that there are people our there who *just don’t get it*.


    1. I’m sorry Godfrey if you think I ‘just didn’t get it’. But I’d beg to differ. I absolutely ‘got it’ and thoroughly enjoyed it.
      I don’t think that my comments were overtly over-critical about what is an excellent read, in fact I was full of praise for the book and if anything was regretting the fact that there wasn’t more of the same.

      In the end we’re all entitled to an opinion eh?

      best wishes



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