Offshore – Penelope Fitzgerald

I always find it interesting when I find a gay storyline or character in a book that I wasn’t expecting to. On Savidge Reads I am reading all of the Man Booker winners in a pact I made with a fellow blogger, and as it was one of the shortest I picked up Offshore to read next. I wasn’t expecting that the Man Booker Winner of 1979 by Penelope Fitzgerald would have a gay character at the heart of it, least of all a gay male prostitute, but then you should never judge a book by its cover should you?

Offshore is set just as it says off shore. The shores in particular aren’t some glistening desert island but instead London in the late seventies, which was actually ‘the now’ when the book was released. In a small little community ‘belonging neither to land nor sea’ we meet the various residents of the houseboats of Battersea Reach. There are three main characters in the novel that we follow; Richard a man in a mainly unstable marriage who tries too keep everyone’s spirits up and is in some ways ‘the captain’ of the community, Nenna who has randomly bought a boat to live on with her daughters and husband, that latter of which never moved in and Maurice a male prostitute by occupation who is also looking after stolen goods. Maurice is a wonderfully written character whose sexuality is part of him, not what he is all about and I find that a really refreshing perspective and one that in 1979 was quite rare in literary fiction I would imagine, I could be wrong though.

How does a book that is only 180 pages and less than 50,000 words manage to encapsulate this society through the day to day and slightly unusual dilemma’s I hear you cry? Well that’s why I think it won the Man Booker. Though I could actually have read a lot more by the end of the book there isn’t much left to add. Just as quickly (and as wonderfully descriptively) as you are thrown into these people’s lives you are equally quickly (and wonderfully descriptively) thrown back out. These are snapshots not life stories and I quite like that in novels, especially with such a jumble of characters as this book has.

I happily meandered through their lives (it isn’t a fast paced book at all), some mundane and average, some dramatic and emotional like a barge meanders down the Thames taking in all the scenery along the way. It is very much a London book and very much a book about normal real people, both factors I like in any book. I have to say my favourite characters and therefore parts of the book because they were in them were Nenna’s children Tilda and Martha. I wanted to join them on the muddy banks of the river finding hidden treasure’s and running wild. This is a very economic book, sparse in words but full of vivid imagery and characters. I am so pleased that I had taken up the challenge and found what may not be on of my favourite reads of all time but fine example of simple, pure literary fiction from an author whose work I want to read more of.

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~ by greatgayreads on April 23, 2009.

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