If there was ever a novel that really deserves to be called a neglected classic, a dubious accolade at the best of times anyway, it is Offshore (1979) by Penelope Fitzgerald. During her lifetime Fitzgerald, who didn’t even begin to write novels until she was nearly of pensionable age, was never short of distinguished champions, nor lacking in literary awards. And since her death in 2000, the likes of Julian Barnes, A. S. Byatt, Philip Hensher, Jan Morris and the list goes on, have all saluted her as one of England’s greatest writers. But their endorsements seem to have been largely in vain for while most of her novels remain in print, she continues, tragically, to be woefully unread, or stubbornly undiscovered, by the book buying public at large. Offshore was even the winner of the Booker Prize. But then that was back in 1979, when winning the Booker had yet to become the stepping stone to the bestsellers lists and the second-best tent at the Hay festival it is now, and arguably the nation had more pressing concerns. The sight of Bo Derek in the film 10, say. Or the little matter of Margaret Thatcher’s new Conservative government unleashing £4 billion of public spending cuts.
Like all of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels, Offshore is extremely short (my edition clocks in at just 141 pages) and has a historical setting, in this instance, London in the early 1960s. Its cast is a gaggle of eccentrics who live on houseboats on the Battersea Reach of the Thames. There is Maurice, a homosexual prostitute, Richard, an ex-navy man adrift on Civvy Street; and Nenna, an abandoned wife with two daughters who run wild on the muddy foreshores of the working river and the antique shops of the Kings Road. Loosely autobiographical, it is a quite exquisite, tragicomic study of love and friendship among the broken and the lost.
Travis Elborough is a writer and journalist. His latest book is Wish You Were: England on Sea.