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.