Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 192 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
A new Jennifer Johnston novel is always something to celebrate in this household, so I was very much looking forward to the arrival of A Sixpenny Song, the author’s 18th novel, at the end of October.
This short book, easily read in an afternoon or over a couple of evenings, is what I would describe as “typical” Jennifer Johnston fare. Like so many of her earlier stories, this one is about fathers, daughters — and family secrets.
Return to the big house
The story, told in the third person, focuses on Annie Ross, who is in her late 20s/early 30s. She was born in Dublin, but her father, a rich and domineering man, shipped her off to boarding school in England when she was 12 — shortly after her mother died — and later, as an 18-year-old, she fled the family home to start a new life in London, free from her father’s expectations and his financial support.
Now her father has died and he’s left her the house, which is set on about 10 acres, so Annie must return to Dublin, her first visit in more than 10 years, to take ownership. But when she returns she finds that the large stately house — “standing resplendent on what looked like its own private hill and backed by the low mountains” — represents more to her than bricks and mortar: it is a repository of her childhood memories, especially of her beloved mother.
When she arrives she is greeted by her father’s second wife, Miriam, who plans to decamp to her pad in Monte Carlo with the money she’s inherited, and Kevin, the odd-job man and gardener, who has spent his life maintaining the property and was a close confidante of her mother’s.
Past and present
The book is structured around two narrative threads: we follow Annie’s present — putting the house on the market, because she can’t afford the upkeep, looking for a venue to set up a bookshop, visits and conversations with people once close to her mother — and her past, in which she recalls memories from her childhood flashback-style. These two expertly interleaved story lines inform one another, allowing Annie’s present discoveries to give new meaning to past experiences.
Her growing friendship with Kevin is absolutely crucial to the plot, because he’s the one that drops a bombshell that makes Annie reassess her parent’s marriage, which may not have been as happy as she once thought. And when he introduces her to his aunt, Miss Dundas, who lives nearby, Annie is able to find out even more about her mother — much of which turns her whole past on its head.
While I wouldn’t describe A Sixpenny Song as my favourite Jennifer Johnston book, it features all her standard trademarks — lyrical prose, authentic dialogue, the big house, the tension between past and present, and the family secret waiting to be exposed — and is a rather effortless read. It’s full of bittersweet memories, biting wit and heart-rending tragedy.
But the story is rather slight and wholly predictable — I guessed all the major revelations long before they were made. And a month after reading it, I’ve had to go back to my notes and the book itself to try to recall any of the detail, so it’s not what I would call a memorable novel.
Instead, I’d mark this one as a cosy read for a time when you are looking for a “palate cleanser” or something light.
Finally, I’d just like to say how much I detest the cover of this book, with its horrid colour scheme and awfully twee image. I wish the publisher would update and reissue all of Jennifer Johnston’s work in a modern and attractive livery — not something that looks like it fell off your granny’s shelf in, oh, about 1973.