Fiction – paperback; Headline Review; 224 pages; 2004.
Jennifer Johnston is my favourite living writer. While I’m familiar with most of her hugely extensive back catalogue, I haven’t really touched her earlier work. I was eager to read Shadows on our Skin, first published in 1977, to see how it compared to her later novels. Not surprisingly, it’s excellent, but it’s not what I would describe as “typical” Johnston fare.
First, it’s set in Northern Ireland — Derry, to be precise (where, I believe, Johnston herself now resides) — unlike much of her later work which is Dublin or London-based. And second, the protagonist is male — a schoolboy of an unspecified age — whereas everything else I have read by her has been told from a female perspective.
But the trademarks are still present: sparse, yet lyrical, prose; characters who are lonely or damaged; themes of loss and tragedy. It’s an effortless read, despite some rather weighty subject matter: the difficulty of growing up while the Troubles rage around you.
It’s a claustrophobic world that Johnston spins here. Joe Langan, a schoolboy with dreamy tendencies (he secretly writes poetry in his maths class), is under strict instruction to come straight home from school every night. There is to be no playing in the street, no hanging out with friends, because his mother fears he will be shot, whether accidentally or on purpose, by the British soldiers that patrol the area.
Joe’s world is reduced to domestic routine — ensuring the anthracite-fired stove is burning, making the tea, helping his aged and alcoholic father get out of bed — before his mother, the main breadwinner of the family, comes home from work. When Joe meets a young local schoolteacher, the lonely Kathleen Doherty, a platonic friendship blossoms between them, and Joe’s world is suddenly opened up…
It’s a fairly low-key story, and not much seems to happen plot wise, but there is something about Shadows on our Skin which is strangely compelling and incredibly moving. There’s an aching quality to the story, the type of pain which feels like a knot in the throat which cannot be swallowed away.
I think it is largely to do with the characterisation, which is superb, and the ways in which Johnston pits various family figures against one another, so that you can feel the tension seething off the page. The embittered relationship between Joe’s parents not only shows how two people can fall out of love with one another, it also shows how they couldn’t live apart either.
Similarly, the not-quite-trusting relationship Joe has with his older brother, the mysterious Brendan, who returns from England after several years away, depicts the rivalries and divided loyalties of siblings living under the one roof.
And the father, a former war hero who tells tales about his past exploits, is also a wonderful example of patriarchal dominance, a figure who continually torments his wife and children, unable to accept how his life has turned out.
But there’s a bigger picture at work here, which is the political and religious war being waged on the streets of Derry. It’s not the focus of the book, but its presence is felt on almost every page, whether it be reports of bombs going off, soldiers raiding Catholic homes in search of IRA weapons or boys having their sports bags searched en-route to school.
Shadows on our Skin, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1977, is an enlightening read and one that cements Jennifer Johnston in my affections even more firmly than before.
9 thoughts on “‘Shadows on our Skin’ by Jennifer Johnston”
This sounds like a good read. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in Northern Ireland. It’s going on my list. Great review.
Perhaps there might be some comparison with McGahern for those of us who are contemplating adding Jennifer Johnston to our reading list. Just a thought.
This was my first JJ book that I read, since she’s gotten so much praise on this blog.
I absolutely loved it, on my grading scale it’s 4.5 stars (out of 5).
I have bought another JJ book (“The Christmas Tree”, a 5-star review at ReadingMatters) that I’m looking forward to read.
Well you converted me to the delights of JJ earlier this year thanks to your putting The Illusionist forward for NTTVBG. I loved it and it has remained with me and lingered long after the last page was turned so of course I now want to read all of her back catalogue eventually. Interesting to see this one is so different from her others, its nice when an author you have read a lot of and enjoy throws you a little left field and yet you still enjoy it.
It’s an interesting thought, Kevin, but I think they are very different writers from vastly different backgrounds. Johnston is very much from the Protestant Ascendancy end of the spectrum while McGahern is very Catholic. Stylistically they’re not that dissimilar, although I think McGahern is far more lyrical and he has a real eye for rural environments. I think Johnston is more urban. But undoubtedly both are excellent writrs!
sounds very good kim ,my grandparents lived in derry my grandfathers antique shop being hit by chance on a number of occasions during troubles ,this would bring back childhood memories of holidays in derry for me ,all the best stu
Thanks, Kim. That is exactly the distinction I needed. I’ll give JJ a try since your McGahern recommendation is the best that I have received in a long while.
Having said all that, I should point out that the family in this story is a Catholic one.
So glad to have introduced you to Jennifer Johnston, Bubba. The Christmas Tree is one of my favourite JJ books. Sadly, I gave my copy away (what was I thinking?) so if I’m to read it again, which I’d like to do at some point, I’m going to have to invest in a new copy!