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Posted 20 hours ago

Offshore

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The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. Sellers, dressed in brilliant colours, outshone the purchasers, and instead of welcoming them, either ignored them or were so rude that they could only have hoped to drive them away. Fitzgerald’s teetering outcasts find it impossible despite their best efforts; they're constantly making half-assed plans to rejoin society, but they've ended up here for a reason.

Then there's Nenna, abandoned by her husband, Edward, whom I gather has the same problem with living on the boat as Richard's wife, Laura, so it comes as no surprise what happens next when their respective spouses have enough of this unsatisfactory way of making a home. 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 book's surprise win was greeted with a reaction that Fitzgerald's publisher described as "so unpleasant a demonstration of naked spite". The storm is described with telling detail, in the streets and on the river – police boats and tugs warning the boat dwellers.

It wasn't clear to me until later in the book that this book was likely set in the late 1960s, which also made the seeming squalor on the river all the more real.

Living on those dilapidated houseboats, neither out at sea nor on the land but stuck between, these resilient personalities are not to be pitied. However, the Thames barges here are strikingly less watertight than the Bells’ Blackbird in The Water Gipsies. 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. Described by the Guardian as, ‘one the most distinctive and elegant voices in contemporary British fiction’, Penelope Fitzgerald was one of the twentieth-century’s most acclaimed British novelists. And then later the same evening - to my eye, and possibly to any reader's eye she has almost, an identical conversation with Richard, the Skipper, the wealthy, conventional owner of Lord Jim.Among the others are two financially secure chaps with, or retired from, office jobs who just prefer barge living to houses. The river's most elusive hours, when darkness lifts off darkness, and from one minute to another the shadows declare themselves as houses or craft at anchor.

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