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A Reader's Guide


Offshore

A marvellous achievement: supple, humane, ripe, generous and graceful.” — Bernard Levin, Sunday Times

Offshore is set in the 1960s among the houseboats that rise and fall with the tide of the Thames on London’s Battersea Reach. Living between land and water, the boat owners, whose craft range from a shipshape converted minesweeper to a leaky barge, feel that they belong to neither. Richard Barnes is an ex-naval reservist whose allegiance to order and efficiency make him the group’s unofficial leader. Nenna James, who is drawn to Richard, still loves her estranged husband, Edward, and tries to manage her two spunky daughters. And Maurice, a male prostitute, is a sympathetic friend to all.

Penelope Fitzgerald guides her charming cast of eccentrics through a series of mishaps and muddles. Along the way, we are treated to Fitzgerald’s trademark wit, deft characterization, and vivid scene setting. Offshore is “dazzling . . . the novelistic equivalent of a Turner watercolor” (Washington Post).


Questions for Discussion

We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and, for every reader, provide a deeper understanding of Offshore.

1. What might be the significance of the title Offshore, other than its obvious reference to living on houseboats? In what ways may Nenna, Richard, Maurice, and Willis all be characterized as being “offshore”? In contrast, how is life “onshore” portrayed?

2. We learn that “Nenna’s attitude to truth was flexible and more like Willis’s than Richard’s.” What are Nenna’s, Willis’s, Richard’s, and Maurice’s attitudes toward the “truth”? Do their attitudes toward the truth change?

3. There are repeated references to the ebb and flood of the river’s tide. What are some examples of how these fluctuating currents mirror the story’s events and the characters’ lives?

4. What prevents Nenna from reuniting with Edward? In what ways might both Nenna and Edward be responsible for their living apart?

5. Fitzgerald writes that “the barge-dwellers . . . would have liked to be more respectable than they were . . . But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people caused them to sink back . . . into the mud moorings of the great tideway.” How do Nenna, Maurice, Willis, and even Richard embody that “certain failure,” and what prevents them from rectifying their situations?

6. In what ways do the names and conditions of the boats Lord Jim, Grace, Dreadnought, Maurice, and the others reflect the owners’ personalities and lives?

7. Maurice says to Nenna, “There isn’t one kind of happiness, there’s all kinds. Decision is torment for anyone with imagination.” What deters the characters from making decisions and experiencing happiness? Why might making a decision be “torment for anyone with imagination”?

8. What ironies emerge in the novel’s final scenes?


About the Author

Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel, The Golden Child, in 1977, when she was sixty years old, and since then she has published eight additional novels to increasing praise and prizes. Three of those—The Bookshop (1978), The Beginning of Spring (1988), and The Gate of Angels (1990)—were short-listed for the Booker Prize. She was awarded the Booker Prize for Offshore (1979). She has also written three biographies. Penelope Fitzgerald, who died on April 18th, 2000, is still regarded as "one of [England's] finest and most entertaining novelists...."(The Observer)

Prior to her career as a novelist, Fitzgerald led a varied professional life. In addition to raising three children, she worked as journalist, in the Ministry of Food, at the BBC, and as a teacher. These experiences, as well as her travels, provided a wonderfully rich harvest of settings and characters from which she later crafted her remarkable fictions.

Among her abiding themes are the courage and determination of innocence in the face of sometimes monstrous adversity, the rewards of courageous eccentricity or creative effort, survival in terms of one's own sense of self, and the sometimes tiny sources of both grand achievement and terrible loss.

In addition to having perfected a style graced by wit, keen perception, and mastery of language, Fitzgerald has written a series of "dry, shrewd, sympathetic, and sharply economical books [that] are almost disreputably enjoyable." (New York Times Book Review)



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