I was really ready to not like it, but I have to admit, Offshore really surprised me. Initially it seemed a little boring, but by the end I was completely won over by the beauty of the prose, the characters and the images. It was easily the most enjoyable read of the Booker winners so far, and is right up there with Banville's The Sea as the most purely novelistic. It was just, I don't know, lovely.
A motley crew of characters live on house boats and barges along the Thames. I won't summarize the plot, because there isn't one, as such. Instead, the book is about the various minor dramas that make up the interconnected lives of the river dwellers, focusing especially on Nenna and her two precocious daughters. The tide ebbs and flows, the boats fall and rise. The characters inhabit an in-between world, not quite at sea and not quite on land, a liminal space that seems inexplicable to everyone else.
The physical position of the boats mirrors the liminality of the characters, each of whom seems caught between different moments or ways of being: Nenna between independence (symbolized by her bright, carefree girls?) and dependence (on a husband who has left them rather than live on a barge); Richard between duty and happiness; Maurice between legality and illegality. The tide seems to push and pull the characters as it does their boats, with Fitzgerald giving us a visual and emotional representation of the ebbs and flows of their lives. All the way through the book runs a longing, embodied in the very boats themselves, old and broken though they may be, to cast off and head for the sea, mythical place of freedom.
It may lack the plot and "seriousness" of a book like Coetzee's Disgrace, but Offshore is so funny, charming, evocative, and beautifully written that I defy anyone not to like it. It's a perfect study in miniature, everything is where it should be.