Offshore (novel)

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First edition
Author Penelope Fitzgerald
Cover artist George Murray
Country United Kingdom
Genre Fiction
Publisher HarperCollins
Publication date
Pages 141 pages
ISBN 0-395-47804-9
OCLC 38043106

Offshore (1979) is a novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. It won the Booker Prize for that year. It recalls her time spent on boats on the Thames in Battersea. The novel explores the liminality of people who do not belong to the land or the sea, but are somewhere in between. The epigraph, "che mena il vento, e che batte la pioggia, e che s'incontran con si aspre lingue" ("whom the wind drives, or whom the rain beats, or those who clash with such bitter tongues") comes from Canto XI of Dante's Inferno.

Plot summary

The novel is set in London in the early 1960s. When Edward takes a job overseas his wife Nenna stays behind in London. With no job, little income and an absentee husband, she resorts to living in a houseboat on the Thames. There she and her two daughters are surrounded by a supportive group of like-minded boat-dwellers. Their houseboats reflect their personalities, ranging from carefully maintained to nearly derelict.

Edward returns to London, but refuses to live with Nenna. Unable to confront her marital problems and infatuated with Richard, Nenna drifts through her days as her prosperous and energetic sister tries to persuade her to move to Canada for the sake of her daughters. Matters become complicated when Willis's boat sinks unexpectedly, Laura leaves Richard and Nenna finally confronts Edward.


Most of the characters in Offshore live in houseboats on the Thames, and are often referred to by their boat's name.

The main character of the novel is Nenna James, a Canadian expat who spent her remaining savings on the houseboat Grace. Nenna has two daughters: Martha, aged 11, and Tilda, aged six. The two girls play truant from school, and frequently display a maturity well beyond their years.[1] Nenna's estranged husband Edward refuses to live with her on the boat, this dispute forming a major part of the novel's plot.

Richard and Laura Blake live on the Lord Jim. Richard is a former Royal Navy officer and the unofficial head of the community of houseboats on the wharf. Laura would prefer to live on dry land, which is a source of disagreement between her and Richard throughout the novel.

Maurice is a male prostitute living on Maurice. His acquaintance, Harry, uses the boat to store stolen goods but does not live on board.

Willis is a painter who lives on Dreadnought, a leaky boat that he attempts to sell on.

Woodie is a retired businessman who lives alone on Rochester during the summer and lives with his wife Janet in Purley during the winter.


Offshore was Penelope Fitzgerald's third published novel. Fitzgerald lived in a barge on Battersea Reach during the 1960s and she drew on this experience when writing Offshore.[1]


  • Review, The New York Times Book Review [2]
  • Review, The Independent[3]
  • Review, The Guardian [4]

Offshore unexpectedly won the Booker Prize in 1979. Hilary Spurling, one of the judges, later said that the panel was unable to decide between A Bend in the River and Darkness Visible, settling on Offshore as a compromise.[5] The book's surprise win was greeted with a reaction that Fitzgerald's publisher said was "so unpleasant a demonstration of naked spite".[6]

Booker Prize recipients

Preceded by
The Sea, the Sea
Booker Prize recipient
Succeeded by
Rites of Passage


  1. ^ a b Alan Hollinghurst (27 October 2013). "Alan Hollinghurst on the genius of Penelope Fitzgerald". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2 September 2017. 
  2. ^ Williamson, Barbara Fisher. "Quiet Lives Afloat". New York Times on the Web. New York Times. Retrieved 20 August 2015. 
  3. ^ Sturges, Fiona. "Book Review: Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald". The Independent. Retrieved 20 August 2015. 
  4. ^ Day, Elizabeth. "Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 August 2015. 
  5. ^ Hilary Spurling (3 August 2008). "Modesty was her metier". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 September 2017. 
  6. ^ Jonathan Derbyshire (4 November 2016). "The politics of literary prize-giving". Financial Times. Retrieved 2 September 2017. 
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