Fiction – paperback; Headline Review; 312 pages; 2007.
If I had my wits about me I’d be reading Jennifer Johnston’s back catalog in the order in which the books were written, so that I could appreciate her development as a writer. However, I’m not that well organised, and when I saw Foolish Mortals in Waterstone’s the other day, while I was doing some last-minute Christmas gift buying, I snapped this one up for myself.
This morning, curled up in bed, I read it cover to cover and, not for the first time, wished my rating system featured half-stars. If it did, I’d probably award Foolish Mortals — Johnston’s most recent novel — three-and-a-half stars: it’s not one of Johnston’s best, although it is by far her most accessible novel. The literary flourishes that characterise most of her books (or the ones that I’ve read so far) are not here, save for one character — Henry — telling his side of the story in the first person, while the rest of the story is narrated in the third person.
The book opens with Henry lying in a hospital bed, drifting in and out of consciousness. We later learn that he’s been involved in a serious car accident in which his wife, Charlotte — the driver — was killed. Save for a lot of broken bones, he’s quite okay but his memory has been shot and it takes time for him to piece the past together.
So here I sit in this hospital room broken in pieces and little by little the past is revealing itself to me. Things I want to know and things that might be better left unremembered. How great it would be if you could only remember the good bits, the noble thoughts, the generosity, all the bits we hope for ourselves. Dreams, prayers, discard the blackness, let all the muck slide away.
Henry’s amnesia is a great device for Johnston to throw in the “reveals” that normally irritate the hell out of me — see my review of Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage for my thoughts on that particular literary device — but in this context they’re appropriate and don’t seem as if the author is using them to show off.
Unfortunately, because the narrative relies on the unveiling of so many “secrets” to work it means I can’t say much more about the storyline without ruining the plot for everyone else. But without giving anything away, Foolish Mortals is about the coming together of a dysfunctional family — Henry’s Canada-based brother, his first wife Stephanie, his almost-grown children and his 80-something mother, the rather gloriously eccentric Tash — with the car accident as a catalyst and everything climaxing with a wonderful Christmas dinner.
It’s delightfully kooky in places, although it never strays into outlandishness. The rambling family nature of the story does bring other authors to mind — Anne Tyler, Anita Shreve and, dare I say it, Maeve Binchy — but it still retains that distinctly Jennifer Jonhston feel with its economical use of language, its strong female characterisation and its deft analysis of ordinary human life.
It was also refreshing to read a book by this writer set in New Ireland (as one of the characters dubs it) instead of some undefined period in history. I enjoyed it as a piece of literary “fluff” but if you’re looking for a serious introduction to Johnston’s work, this is probably not the place to start.