1979 Booker Prize

Winner: Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald


The following novels constitute the shortlist for the 1979 Booker Prize:

Notable Omissions from the 1979 Shortlist


OFFSHORE book cover   Offshore
Penelope Fitzgerald

Dustjacket synopsis:
"Offshore is set in the 1960s among the houseboat commnity who rise and fall with the tide of the Thames on Battersea Reach. Living between land and water, they feel as if they belong to neither. Maurice, a male prostitute, is the sympathetic friend to whom all the others turn. Nenna loves her husband but can't get him back; her children run wild on the muddy foreshore. She feels drawn to Richard, the ex-RNVR city man whose converted minesweeper dominates the Reach. Is he sexually attractive because he can fold maps the right way? The novel puts this question, and other ones about truth and kindness."

"This is an astonishing book. Hardly more than 50,000 words, it is written with a manic economy that makes it seem even shorter, and with a tamped-down force that continually explodes in a series of exactly controlled detonations. It is funny, its humour far more robust than it at first appears, but it has in addition a sense of battles barely lost, of happiness at any rate brushed by the fingers as it passes by, of understanding gained at the last second. Offshore is a marvellous achievement: strong, supple, humane, ripe, generous and graceful." - Bernard Levin, Sunday Times
"She writes the kind of fiction in which perfecton is almost to be hoped for, unostentatious as true virtuosity can make it, its texture a pure pleasure." - Frank Kermode, London Review of Books
"The novelistic equivalent of a Turner watercolour. As this perfectly balanced novel hurries to its surprising end, one feels the momentum of a noble engine." - Frances Taliaferro, Washington Post

First Paragraph:

'Are we to gather that Dreadnought is asking us all to do something dishonest?' Richard asked.

Dreadnought nodded, glad to have been understood so easily.

'Just as a means of making a sale. It seems the only way round my problem. If all present wouldn't mind agreeing not to mention my main leak, or rather not to raise the question of my main leak, unless direct enquiries are made.'

'Do you in point of fact want us to say that Dreadnought doesn't leak?' asked Richard patiently.

'That would be putting it too strongly.'

From the Flamingo paperback edition, 19?.

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CONFEDERATES book cover   Confederates
Thomas Keneally

Dustjacket synopsis:
"As the Civil War tears America apart, General Stonewall Jackson leads a troop of Confederate soldiers on a long trek north towards the battle they believe will be a conclusive victory. Through their hopes, fears and losses, Keneally searingly conveys both the drama and mundane hardship of war, and brings to life one of the most emotive episodes in American history."

"Deserves comparison with the great war novels of the last hundred years." - The Observer
"A fine and compelling novel" - Financial Times
"It compels admiration over and over for its energy and its insight into human character" - The Spectator
"An extraordinary historical imagination...a writer of great power" - Malcolm Bradbury
"Such a magnificent book that I count it a privilege to read and keep" - Books and Bookmen

First Paragraph:

In the second year of the war, Mrs Ephephtha Bumpass saw her husband Usaph unexpectedly one cold March night. This happened way over in the great Valley of Virginia on a night of bitter frost. Usaph had come knocking on the door of the Bumpass family farm near the fine town of Strasburg and, when the door opened, he was the last person she expected to see.

At the time, she was sitting at the kitchen hearth with the old slave Lisa and the fourteen-year-old boy of a neighbour called Travis. Mr Travis had lent her the boy to do chores for her and to keep her company. Ephie Bumpass had been married some sixteen months up to that point and had lived all those sixteen months on this highland farm in the shadow of Massanutten Mountain. But Bumpass had met and wooed her in a very different country from this. She'd been raised down in the Carolinas, in the torpid swamps round the mouth of the Combahee River. Her father had been a drum fisherman there and it was all the world she knew til Usaph brought her up here to Virginia.

From the Sceptre paperback edition, 1999.

You can read further details about this and other novels on the Thomas Keneally page.

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A BEND IN THE RIVER book cover   A Bend in the River
V.S. Naipaul

Cover illustration by Tony Moore.

Dustjacket synopsis:
"When Salim is offered a small business in Central Africa he accepts. Accompanied by Metty, a son of one of the family's slaves, he travels a long way into the heart of the continent and becomes a trader in the town on a bend in a river."

"V.S. Naipaul uses Africa as a text to preach magnificently upon the sickness of a world losing touch with its past" - Claire Tomalin, Sunday Times
"Astonishing...superb characterisation...dramatic invention...wit and wisdom" - Arthur Calder-Marshall, Evening Standard
"Brilliant" - Anthony Burgess, Quarto
"Mr Naipaul is our greatest war-reporter from the front line of the modern world's Kulturkampf; and in A Bend in the River he brings that war inescapably before us" - Bernard Levin, Sunday Ties
"More than a true and powerful book about Africa it is...one of those books that make you question many assumptions about the world today" - Richard West, Spectator

First Paragraph:

The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.

Nazruddin, who had sold me the shop cheap, didn't think I would have it easy when I took over. The country, like others in Africa, had its troubles after independence. The town in the interior, at the bend in the great river, had almost ceased to exist; and Nazruddin said I would have to start from the beginning.

I drove up the coast in my Peugot. That isn't the kind of drive you can do nowadays in Africa - from the east coast right through to the centre. Too many of the places on the way have closed down or are full of blood. And even at that time, when the roads were more or less open, the drive took me over a week.

From the Penguin paperback edition, 1982.

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JOSEPH book cover   Joseph
Julian Rathbone

Jacket: Graham Rogers.

Dustjacket synopsis:
"Spain - 1808 to 1813 - where Revolution collides with Reaction, a British Army with a French; the Spain of Goya, where ignorant armies clash and from under them all comes the voice of Joseph: by birth European, by education enlightened, and living in Salamanca which suffered a new invasion every six months and saw one of Wellington's greatest battles. From, the moment in early childhood when Joseph hurls a stone at a playmate and makes an evil enemy for life, to the last page when he climbs a hill in North Spain accompanied by a donkey, a giantess. and a new-born babe, and blunders, not for the first time, beneath the feet of the Peer and into a battle, he takes the reader by the elbow and hurries him 'will he or will he not' across the terrible years that saw the birth of our own times.

"Battles, picnics (sometimes together), infatuations, fiestas, executions, births and deaths succeed each other. A host of richly portrayed characters - Joseph's father whose constantly failing God is Reason; Rafael, heroic and doomed; Coffey and Nolan, Irish soldiers as at home here as they might have been in a Shakespeare History or a First World War trench; the mysterious and voluptuous Madam La Granace; Mistress Flora Tweedy who stands alone in the face of a troop of French Cavalry (but falls to ... well, who does she fall to?), the Emporer himself in sublimely megalomanic mood; and' of course, the Duke - all these with support from witches, bull-figters, gypsies, whores, guerrilleros make up a cast that would not disgrace the pages of Fielding.

"Racy, pcaresque, but with an underlying seriousness, Joseph is the major work that Julian Rathbone has promised since the publication of King Fisher Lives."

First Paragraph:

That I was born in 1790, that I resided in Spain, nay in the very cockpit of Spain, I mean in Salamanca, between 1796 and 1813, must evidence to anyone versed at all in the History of the Late Wars that the tale of my life will in part be the story of those wars. Indeed it is so. I played my part in many a long campaign, through tedious sieges, and at more than one glorious battle, not the least of which was that fought on the Twenty-Second ofjuly, 1812, round and in the very village where my youth was spent, a league and a half South of the City - I mean Los Arapiles itself.

Yet there were strands in the thread of my life other than the bloody one of War and it is no easy matter to separate all out, so closely were they spun together; and to those who find the confusion of matter in what follows a reason for censure I must say - thus was my life in its entirety, and life is not often nice nor neat, and if they want their Wars and Heroes unmixed with stuff of a lower sort, they should lay out their money on Histories, or on Memoirs of the Great, or on some other kind of Fiction.

Beside the bloody strand of War, mentioned above, the yarn of my life is flecked with the green thread of Love and the black one of private enmity or vendetta, and since I knew of both before I heard the beat of drum or crash of musket; since, though scarcely ten years old, I had made a mortal enemy and enjoyed the tender caresses of the Other Sex, and this within the space of three days in the Summer of 1800, it is in that time that I choose to begin this truthful account of the years I have so far been blessed with.

From the Michael Joseph hardback edition, 1979.

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PRAXIS book cover   Praxis
Fay Weldon

Cover design by Susan Andrews / Cover illustration by Debra White

Dustjacket synopsis:
"Raised by a mad mother and a half-mad sister, abandoned by her father, Praxis Duveen is a master of the art of survival. Her life, indeed, has been full: two marriages, unsuccessful; a brief but profitable career as a prostitute; a little dabbling in incest; a mercy killing; and an inadvertent reign as both apostle and victim of the women's movement.

"Buffeted and battered by life, Praxis has survived with energy and humor intact. Her struggles with men and women, with mother and marriages, and most particularly, with herself, become, in weldon's deft hands, a witty and trenchant commentary on what women want - and what they can actually get."

"Weldon writes with elegance and drive, delivering sentences like pellets form a BB gun - wiry, pithy, rapid-fire" - Newsweek
"Dazzling...pointing up the mad underside of our sexual politics with a venomous accuracy for which wit is far too mild a word" - The New York Times Book Review

First Paragraph:

Praxis Duvenn, at the age of five, sitting on the beach at Brighton, made a pretty picture for the 'photographer. Round angel face, yellow curls, puffed sleeves, white socks and little white,shoes - one on, one off, while she tried to take a pebble from between her tiny pink toes-delightful! The photographer had hoped to include her elder sister, Hypatia, in the picture, but that sullen, sallow little girl had refused to appear on the same piece of card as her ill-shod sister.

"Of course," said their mother, apologetically, "Hypatia is the artistic one, and very sensitive. Praxis is the pretty one." She clearly valued sensitivity above prettiness.

Snap! went the photographer. Praxis beamed. Hypatia scowled. The photographer, Henry Whitechapel, had been a bombardier in the First World War, and afterwards, until too gassed, wounded and shell-shocked to continue his original profession, had taken to his present trade more in desperation than enthusiasm. But he enjoyed his summers on the coast. The sea air eased his damaged lungs, and the pickings were better than in London, and the holiday makers less likely to remember money spent in advance on photographs which then failed to turn up in the post.

From the King Penguin paperback edition, 1990.

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Notable Omissions from the Shortlist:
"A Dry White Season", Andre Brink
"Winter Doves", David Cook
"Darkness Visible", William Golding
"Burger's Daughter", Nadine Gordimer
"Treasures of Time", Penelope Lively
"Spring Sonata", Bernice Rubens
"Wild Nights", Emma Tennant

This page and its contents are copyright © 2002-05 by Perry Middlemiss, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Last modified: October 24, 2005.