Books · Uncategorized

Folk of the River

OffshoreOffshore by Penelope Fitzgerald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was a child, I occasionally watched a TV show, familiar to most British people of my generation, about two puppets who lived on a canal barge called Ragdoll, which seemed homely, safe and jolly. Most people only set foot on a boat for the purpose of pleasure and so imagine life on a barge to be sheer, uninterrupted delight. I have always been drawn to water, and even lived at sea for a while (I was not happy for other reasons, but I was happy to be at sea) But, hopelessly addicted to warmth and cleanliness, knowing the filthy Thames, the muggy, tepid London weather at its most unpleasantly moist, I must imagine being utterly miserable on a river barge once the novelty wore off. I can only assume Nenna and Richard feel a stronger inexplicable affinity with the watery element than I.

Of course, the book is short enough to maintain the feeling of novelty and I am able to remain dry while reading it, so Fitzgerald has to make it sound as squalid and uncomfortable as possible to prevent me feeling envious of her vividly sketched cast. The exactness and offhandedness of her de-romanticising portrait of the river life reflect her own stint on a Thames barge, and this autobiographical realism affords the story unsettling and soggy emotional depths under its crisp, witty surface.

After Angela Carter’s glorious romp Nights at the Circus, for example, this book feels so calm, so sure-footed, with all its adverbs absolutely to purpose and, as on Richard’s boat Lord Jim, everything in its place. But while Richard complains of not being able to get his feelings across easily, Fitzgerald is a virtuoso of economical expression, somehow finding time for six-year-old Tilda’s second-hand daydreams and a plethora of colourful minor characters who briefly enter or impinge upon the rather isolated river community. Most charming of these is the aristocratic German teenager Heinrich, who captivates the grounded, hilariously and tragically mature Martha, Nenna’s elder daughter. Nenna herself, as foolish and helpless as I myself feel, though entirely sympathetic, reminds me of Bridget Jones, or even better a character from one of Wes Anderson’s films, which this book decidedly evokes for me. Indeed, a cross between classic chick-lit and Andersonian whimsy might read just like this, if it were written by a genius who had experienced actual poverty.

Here the chick-lit trope of the gay male friend is embodied by Maurice, a lovingly drawn character whom Fitzgerald based on a real friend of hers. While the trope can be desexualising (and the role, I suppose, exploitative and othering) and oriented to diffuse heteronormative anxieties, at least it grants some degree of visibility, which in the seventies was probably still worth having in itself. In this case, Maurice, a sex-worker, is no stereotype and is Nenna’s closest friend. The book’s ending feels like a tribute to him. However, both Nenna and Maurice possess the ability to express their feelings, which Richard says he lacks. This vital ability may be the feminine counterpart to Nenna’s claimed deficiencies-of-gender, such as being unable to fold a map. This crude surmise of mine makes Maurice feminine. In any case, Richard’s behaviour and skills are always tidily attributed to ‘training’, a word encompassing both military and social conditioning. The socialisation of women into caring, empathic, expressive skills is less visible, indeed, in this book it is never mentioned.

The story, despite its female centre on Nenna and her daughters, is rather oriented towards men. The river community’s life has wealthy, efficient, upperr class, generous, decent, chivalrous Richard at its hub, and Nenna is so focussed on her broken marriage that she can barely care for her daughters, who fortunately are more than capable of picking up the slack. Even the girls have male preoccupations (Elvis, for example) yet, Fitzgerald finally refuses to let men dominate. (view spoiler)

The contrast between Nenna’s London and the one I live in today is most evident in the gentrification of Chelsea, especially the King’s Road, now lined with high-end chain stores, designer outlet, expensive cafes and the Saatchi Gallery, which in Offshore appears as a kind of bohemian paradise vaguely reminiscent of present day Camden High Street, only more enchanting. Stoke Newington has also, more recently, become a fashionable address. I cannot tell, though, whether cab drivers have become less kind.

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