Fiction – hardcover; Headline Review; 160 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Jennifer Johnston does a nice line in slightly kooky characters, and her latest novel, to be published on November 16, is no exception. Desmond Fitzmaurice, one of two main characters in Truth or Fiction, is a doddery old writer who’s fallen into obscurity. He lives a rather privileged existence in a house on the Dublin waterfront, where he is waited on hand and foot by his second wife, the dour-faced Anna. For all intents and purposes he seems to be a gentle old soul prone to sentimentality and a hankering for times gone by.
But then London-based journalist, Caroline Wallace, enters his rather mundane world and this version of a polite, well-mannered chap nearing the end of his life, gets turned, ever so slowly, on its head. Caroline, who’s been dispatched to interview him on the eve of his 90th birthday, isn’t entirely sure what to expect. When she arrives the first thing she does is tell Desmond that:
“My editor asked me to come and interview you. She would like to bring you back to life again. She feels your work is too important to be let fade away, as it has. She would like me to reassess your work and also to do a feature on your lifestyle. How you live, how you have lived, the interlocking of your life and work.”
Desmond is not entirely enamoured with the intrusion:
“You wish to take the unimportant garbage of my life and stir it in with the important, with my work. You wish to make me intelligible to the masses. I never wrote for the masses to read.”
And yet, there’s something about this new-found attention that wins Desmond over. Before long he is introducing Caroline to the important people in his life and confessing a succession of sordid events. But how much of what he tells her is truth, and how much of it is fiction?
The beauty of this novel, Johnston’s 16th, is not so much her typical restrained and unpretentious prose style, nor the fast-moving narrative that largely comprises dialogue, but her very human characters with their flaws and foibles. That Caroline arrives in Dublin reeling from a marriage proposal made by her partner of 10 years adds an extra layer to the story, for how much of her anger is affecting her opinion of Desmond? And why is she so angry in the first place?
Once again Johnston has delivered an entertaining and effortless read, one that can quite comfortably be read in an hour or two. It’s a welcome return to form after her slightly disappointing Foolish Mortals; I only wish I hadn’t raced through it so quickly, because it could be a long wait for her next one.