Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

"Offshore" by Penelope Fitzgerald (HarperCollins, 1979)

Winner of the Booker Prize. Set on Thames houseboats. Only 140 pages. Characterisation is played for laughs, The girls of 6 and 10 years old act way beyond their years. Even the cat's mental state is revealed. Omniscience plus narrator interjections give a comic feel to the book -

  • "Biologically they could be said, as most tideline creatures are, to be 'successful'. They were not easily dislodged. But to sell your craft, to leave the Reach, was felt to be a desperate step, like those of amphibians when, in earlier stages of the world's history, they took ground. Many of these species perished in the attempt" (p.10)
  • "She gave him a weary, large-eyed, shires-bred glance, a glance whose horizons should have been bounded by acres of plough and grazing" (p.11)
  • "Richard, who always put each section of his life, when it was finished with, quietly behind him, and liked to be able to give a rational explanation for everything" (p.11)
  • "Those who felt affection for him had no easy way of telling him so, since he seemed to regard friend and enemy like" (p.12)
  • "Nenna's character was faulty, but she had the instinct to see what made other people unhappy, and this instinct had only failed her once, in the case of her own husband" (p.16)
  • "Although he tried hard to do so, Richard could never see how anyone could live without things in working order" (p.18)
  • "Tilda cared nothing for the future, and had, as a result, a great capacity for happiness. At the moment she was perfectly happy" (p.27)
  • "his face could be seen. It was very pale and had no expression, as though expressions were surplus to requirements" (p.30)
  • "But her heart did not rule her memory, as was the case with Matha and Nenna. At least she was spared that inconvenience" (p.32)
  • "she fell in love as only a violinist can" (p.34)
  • "Tenderly responsive to the self-deceptions of others, he was unfortunately too well able to understand his own" (p.46)
  • "The body must either repair itself or stop functioning, but that is not true of the emotions, and particularly of Willis's emotions" (p.59)
  • "He was not quite satisfied with the way his mind was working. Something was out of phase. He did not recognise it as hope" (p.61)
  • "The two girls sat on the wall of Old Battersea churchyard to eat their sandwiches. These contained a substance called Spread, and, indeed, that was all you could do with it" (p.65) (a paragraph I find puzzling)
  • "'You've always known how to get rid of my friends,' Edward muttered.
    Nenna was no more able to deny this than any other woman
    " (p.90) (I find this puzzling too)
  • "he disliked comparisons, because they made you think about more than one thing at a time" (p.104)

Flights of imagination come and go all but unannounced.

At a meeting people are referred to by the name of their boat. Boats are humanised on p.43 where it says "The old barges, who had once ...". On p.50 it says "Willises, carefully packed in stiff board", "Willises" being artworks by Willis. On p.89 there's "I'm Grace [her boat]. I mean I'm Nenna"

There's some plot. A barge sinks. Nenna begs her estranged husband to return to the boat. She returns alone to find that a neighbour thinks he's just been left by his wife. Richard is attacked.


  • "'She's a thought damp" (p.91). A touch damp?
  • "The he made" (p.98). Then he made?

Other reviews

  • Alan Hollinghurst
  • Elizabeth Day (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)
  • Reading Matters


  1. "A thought damp" isn't a typo. I've seen "a thought" used to mean "a little" often enough.