Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 158 pages; 1984.
This classic text by Irish writer Jennifer Johnston won the Whitbread Award for the best novel of 1979, the year in which it was first published.
It’s set immediately after the Great War in an unspecified village by the sea, a short train journey from Dublin. Here 18-year-old Nancy, an orphan, lives with her Aunt Mary and her invalid grandfather, a veteran of the Boer War. It’s summer and Nancy is on the brink of adulthood, excited about starting her new life, but reluctant to bade goodbye to childhood.
Secretly in love with her neighbour, Harry, a city worker who treats her like a younger sister, she knows deep down inside that he will never reciprocate her feelings: he’s too busy wooing another villager, the haughty Maeve Casey.
Nancy, naive but headstrong, spends much of her time alone at the beach, where she discovers a secluded hut — “built by some railway workers many years before, cleverly hidden in among the granite blocks, which protected it from the sea wind” — that she makes her own.
During one visit she discovers, much to her annoyance, that someone else has been using the hut, and before long she meets the intruder, an older man, in hiding, whom she befriends. And then, one day, he shows her his gun…
This is a typical Jennifer Johnston book, told in sparse but highly evocative prose. Her protagonist Nancy is acutely believable — although she appears strangely unworldly compared to today’s teenagers, a product, perhaps, of the time in which the book is set.
What I liked most was the author’s reluctance to spell everything out, forcing the reader to join the dots and interpret all the very many things left unsaid or unexplained. But that is very much a Johnston trademark and one that works to particular advantage here, least of all because the story has a very dark heart — should you fight for your family or your country? — that would lose its impact should it be spelt out in black and white. In fact, it’s the shades of grey that Johnston specialises in that makes many of her books, not just The Old Jest, so beautiful and perfectly self-contained.
And the ending — a powerful wallop that ties everything up in a neat package — makes it all the more satisfying to read.