Fiction – hardcover; Headline Review; 240 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
One of several reoccurring themes in Jennifer Johnston‘s writing is that of the young Irish woman trying to find her place in the world. This kind of coming of age story is the essential focus of Shadowstory, her latest novel, which was published last month.
In this, her 17th novel, Johnston introduces us to Polly, who is a little girl when her father, Greg, is killed in the Second World War. Greg comes from a well-to-do Anglo-Irish family, who live in a big house, complete with an expensive clay tennis court, by the ocean in County Clare.
Polly’s mother, Nonie, remarries and has two more children, but Polly feels closer to her Uncle Sam — her late father’s youngest brother — who is just five years older than her, than she does her half-siblings. This is an important element of the story, because it is this closeness with Sam and, in turn, her grandparents, that makes Polly forever feel like an outsider within her own family unit.
As she negotiates that tricky twilight period between childhood and adulthood, Polly finds her loyalties divided between her mother, in Dublin, and her father’s family, in Clare, with whom she wants to spend more of her time. And when Sam decides to become a Communist and flee to Cuba, her loyalties are divided again: she is made to swear never to tell anyone where he has gone.
While the focus of the novel is largely on Polly — a lovely sweet natured girl who seems too naive to realise that her uncle’s affections border on incest — the story also charts the demise of an Anglo-Irish Big House (another recurring theme in Jonhston’s work) and the family that resides within it.
I found her depiction of Polly’s stubborn grandfather, a veteran of the Somme who walks with a limp and secretly mourns the death of two of his children in the Second World War, particularly moving. His rapid decline into old age, and the way in which this affects Polly, is heart-breaking.
Atmosphere and family tensions
It might not seem much of a plot — indeed, Polly, who narrates the story says as much towards the end — but Johnston’s elegant writing and her ability to capture atmosphere in such an acute way makes this one of the finest novels she’s written for awhile.
Johnston is also very good at evoking the tensions, domestic and ideological, between family members — without actually describing them. And the Irish political issues of the day — much of the book is set in the 1950s, a time when the Catholic Church was at its zenith — are alluded to without being spelled out.
Overall, Shadowstory is charming without being cloying, and, as ever, it’s Johnston’s alluring, elliptical prose style and her bittersweet portrait of one girl’s transition from childhood to adulthood that makes it a heartfelt, deeply affecting read. There were moments, especially towards the end, where I wanted to grab the nearest box of tissues and have a good old howl!