Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, Australia, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Catherine Steadman, Children/YA, crime/thriller, Daunt Books, Elisa Shua Dusapin, England, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, South Korea

Four Quick Reviews: Elisa Shua Dusapin, Jennifer Johnston, Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, and Catherine Steadman

As 2020 draws to a close, I’m keen to wrap-up all my reviews so that I’m not playing catch-up well into the new year. (I will do my books of the year post tomorrow.)

So here are four quick reviews of books I have read recently. They are a good reflection of my eclectic reading tastes because they include a translated novel (from Korea/France), a literary novel (from Ireland), a young adult novel (by two Aboriginal writers) and a psychological thriller-cum-mystery (from England).

They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Winter in Sokcho’  by Elisa Shua Dusapin
Fiction – paperback; Daunt Books; 154 pages; 2020. Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

This intriguing novel is set in a South Korean tourist town, not far from the border with North Korea, during the offseason. The unnamed French-Korean narrator is a young woman in her early 20s who feels like an outsider but has no real desire to travel or live elsewhere. She has a disinterested boyfriend, who heads to Seoul to follow his dream of becoming a model, while she remains behind in Sokcho to help run a near-empty guest house. Her mother, who works in a nearby fish market, is critical of her daughter’s failure to get married and makes snide comments about her weight (she’s so thin you can see her ribs).

When a young Frenchman arrives at the guest house so he can work on his drawings (he’s a cartoonist), the narrator develops an uneasy one-sided relationship with him, acting as his tour guide and (unknown to her) muse for his art.

The entire novella is embued with a sense of melancholia, helped partly by the pared-back, hypnotic prose in which it’s written, but it also has a page-turning quality because the reader can’t help but wonder if the pair will ever become lovers. I  really enjoyed this debut and ate it up in a matter of hours.  Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal liked it too.

‘The Captains and the Kings’  by Jennifer Johnston
Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline; 152 pages; 1999. 

Jennifer Johnston is my favourite living writer and this book, her debut, first published in 1972 when she was in her 40s, earned her the Author’s Club First Novel Award.

There’s an aching, melancholy quality to this story, about Mr Predergast, a well-travelled elderly Anglo-Irishman, a widower, who now lives alone in his crumbling Big House with just his (drunken) gardener for company. When a local lad, Diarmid, is foisted on him by his parents because they’re worried he won’t amount to anything and needs a reliable job, Mr Predergast is dismissive. He doesn’t want to employ him.

But Diarmid, who is friendless and lonely himself, doesn’t take no for an answer and eventually the pair develop an uneasy friendship that gives Mr Predergast a renewed lease of life, one that helps him get over the loss of his elder brother in the Great War and eases the pain of his late (overbearing) mother’s preference for her older son. As the pair become closer — an old man at the end of his life, a teenager on the brink of his — the local community, headed by the vicar, does not approve of the relationship between a Protestant man and a Catholic boy — with bittersweet consequences. Lisa at ANZLitLovers liked this one too.

‘Catching Teller Crow’  by Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 180 pages; 2019. 

This is one of the more unusual books I have read this year — a young adult novel written by an Aboriginal brother and sister duo — that employs Aboriginal storytelling devices in which time is not linear. It’s billed as a crime novel, but it incorporates elements of magic realism, has occasional chapters written entirely in verse, is narrated by a dead teenager, features an indigenous ghost as a witness and focuses on the “enduring strength of Aboriginal women and girls”.

The plot revolves around a murder investigation by a grief-stricken white detective and his Aboriginal daughter, Beth Teller, who has not yet “crossed over to the other side” having recently been killed in a car accident. Working together, the pair uncover a series of clues that suggest a fire in a local boarding house may have been deliberately lit in order to cover a hideous crime. A potential witness, a teenage girl called Isobel Catching, helps them build the case.

The story, which weaves colonial history, violence and grief into the narrative, has earned two of Australia’s most prestigious writing awards: the Victorian Premier YA Prize for Literature, and Best Young Adult Novel at the Aurealis Awards. I found it hard work, and a little bit out of my comfort zone, but it’s a good one to try if you are looking for something different.

‘Mr Nobody’  by Catherine Steadman
Fiction – Kindle edition; Simon & Schuster; 400 pages; 2020. 

Last year I read Steadman’s debut novel, Something in the Water, which I really enjoyed, so I was looking forward to this new one published earlier in the year.

The story starts with a handsome man washed up on a Norfolk beach who cannot remember his name and has no ID on his person. In fact, he has no memory at all. A young neuropsychiatrist from London, Dr Emma Lewis, is drafted in to determine if he is faking it, but Dr Lewis has her own mysterious past, having been in a witness protection program for the past 14 years, and the decision to accept the job is a risky one.

The author plays her hand carefully, drip-feeding information bit by bit, so the doctor’s back story doesn’t become clear until you are two-thirds of the way through the novel, making this a proper page-turner. There are enough hints that the amnesiac may also have a dodgy past — perhaps he was an assassin or a spy or worked for the military in some capacity.

Unfortunately, this curious medical mystery goes a bit over-the-top toward the end and heads into psychological thriller territory with a wholly unbelievable denouement. Up until the 80% mark (yes, I read this on a Kindle) I really enjoyed the story, but it was let down by a ludicrous ending that tied up all the loose bits too neatly, a common fault of the genre, I guess. And at 400 pages, it was far too long…

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘This is Not a Novel’ by Jennifer Johnston

This is not a novel by Jennifer Johnston

Fiction – paperback; Headline Review; 224 pages; 2003.

Thirty years ago, Imogen’s older brother went swimming in the sea off the Cork coast and was never seen again. Now, convinced that he may be still alive, she pieces together their family history and puts it down in a book, hoping Johnny, “somewhere in the world, may read it and may pick up the nearest telephone”.

This is the premise behind Jennifer Johnston’s This is Not a Novel, which was first published in 2002, making it her 13th work of fiction.

When the story opens Imogen has just sold her late father’s house on the Lansdowne Road, in Dublin, for a “whacking amount of money” and has inherited a trunk full of family correspondence and mementos, many of them from her grandparents and great grandparents, which shed light on their involvement in the First World War and the pains and small tragedies of another time and place.

The narrative is framed around the letters, press cuttings and diary entries Imogen finds in this trunk. Combined with Imogen’s memories surrounding the period immediately before Johnny’s disappearance and her memories from the current day, 30 years later, the book is a rich, elegiac tapestry of family history and deeply held secrets.

Refusal to believe

Three decades on, Imogen refuses to believe that Johnny ever drowned because her brother was a brilliant swimmer, and until he took against his father, was on track to become an Olympic champion. His body was never found.

At the time of his “death”, Imogen was in a psychiatric unit having lost the ability to speak and was thought to have had a nervous breakdown. She came of age during her confinement and was able to leave the institution without her parents’ approval.

The reason for Imogen’s loss of voice is key to the story. While we learn very early on that her mother, Sylvia, does not truly love her and acts rather coolly and indifferently to her, it’s not until the latter third of the novel that we understand what triggers Imogen’s fragile mental health. It’s shocking, but the clues are there for the reader who looks carefully enough to find them.

There’s a lot going on in this novel — about echoes of the past coming back to haunt the family, about unrequited love, familial love and acceptance of differences.

Two key characters — Bruno, the young German teacher who befriends Imogen’s family and becomes her first love, and Mathilde, the home help who escapes the Nazis and reinvents herself as a devout Catholic — are reminders that Ireland’s neutrality in both the First and Second World Wars is not without consequence.

I really loved This is Not a Novel. It’s very much typical Jennifer Johnston fare (I’ve read and reviewed much of her exhaustive back catalogue now) and features her trademark focus on nuance, the small hurts that render people emotionally fragile and awkward mother/daughter relationships. It’s a good a place as any to start if you have never read any of this author’s work before.

This is my 15th book for #20booksofsummer. I have no memory of buying it — I suspect it might have been on one of my short trips to Dublin at some point — but I do know that it’s been in my TBR for at least five years. I had been saving it up, because I only have a few Johnston novels left to read and I don’t want to get to a position where I’ve finished all her work because that means I’ll have no new JJ novels to discover.

Author, Book review, Colette McBeth, crime/thriller, Fiction, Headline Review, London, Publisher, Setting

‘The Life I Left Behind’ by Colette McBeth


Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline; 352 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

After reading a succession of rather heavy literary novels (some of which are yet to be reviewed), I decided I needed to immerse myself in a psychological thriller — my palette cleanser of choice — which is how I came to read Colette McBeth’s The Life I Left Behind.

Trio of narrators

The story, which is set in West London (in locations I know very well), has three different narrators, who take it in turns to tell the story in alternate chapters.

The first is Melody Pieterson, a woman who survived an attempt on her life five years earlier and lived to tell the tale. But she’s now so psychologically scarred she can barely function and never leaves the house in the Surrey countryside that she shares with her fiancé, a doctor called Sam.

Then there is Eve Elliot, a freelance TV producer, who is found dead in the same heavily wooded location that Melody was discovered. She narrates her version of events from beyond the grave.

And finally there is Detective Inspector Victoria Rutter, who investigated Melody’s case, in which the attempted murderer was put behind bars. That man, David Alden, has recently been released from prison, so has he struck once again? DI Rutter isn’t quite so sure…

Twists and turns

The Life I Left Behind is full of lots of creepy twists, chilling turns and false leads. The main twist comes fairly early on when the identity of Melody’s attempted murderer is called into question. That’s because Eve had recently been researching the idea that David had been wrongly convicted — she had found new evidence which threw the guilty verdict into doubt — and had met with David on the night of her murder. What would he have to gain in killing the person who was championing his innocence?

There are lots of other minor twists as the story works towards its inevitable conclusion of revealing the identity of the real killer.

It is to the author’s credit that I failed to guess the ending. Indeed, the denouement is nicely done; it’s restrained yet satisfying, which can be quite a feat to pull off in this genre which so often resorts to over-the-top drama or ties up everything in too neat a package.

Compelling but flawed

But while the plot is compelling and original, the book does have a few flaws, not the least of which is David’s wrongful conviction, which seems slightly preposterous and not truly rooted in reality. The only way I could enjoy this story was to suspend belief and try not to worry about the fact that the police and David’s own defence counsel hadn’t done their jobs properly.

And the characters — including the trio of subsidiary male ones — while all well-drawn, are weak, shallow and manipulative. I know you don’t need to like characters to like a book, but in a psychological thriller it helps to at least empathise with the victim so you can will them to escape from the danger that threatens them. In this case, I couldn’t care less about Melody — and Eve, well, she was already dead, so what was the point?

All in all, The Life I Left Behind is a fairly average psychological thriller — although all the four- and five-star reviews on Amazon might suggest otherwise.

Author, Book review, Eowyn Ivey, Fiction, general, Headline Review, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey


Fiction – hardcover; Headline Review; 432 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Who hasn’t heard of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child? It arrived in the UK with much fanfare upon publication early last year, and if you care to look at the reviews on Amazon, there’s more than 550, most of which sing its praises.

Set in snowy Alaska

The story, which is set in the Alaskan wilderness in the early 20th century, revolves around Jack and Mabel, a married couple who are unable to have children. They are now in their forties and have decided to start their life afresh in a remote homestead cut off from family and friends.

But in the opening pages of this novel, all is not well: Mabel is depressed enough to want to take her own life, and it is only by sheer luck that her plan to drown herself in the frozen river does not come to fruition. Meanwhile, Jack is working all the hours god sends to try and farm the land, but with limited success. The pair are rarely communicating and its clear their marriage is on the rocks.

Then something truly magical happens. In an unexpectedly carefree moment, they build a snowman designed to look like a little girl, and dress it up with a scarf and mittens. But in the morning the scarf and mittens are gone, the snowman is partly melted and there are fresh child-sized footprints in the snow. Later they see a little girl running through the forest…

Based on a Russian fairy tale

The Snow Child is partly based on a Russian fairy tale — The Snow Maiden — in which a child made from snow comes alive. In Ivey’s novel, Mabel knows this story well and wonders if their little snowman has turned into the child they could not have.

Eventually, Jack and Mabel meet the child and develop a strong bond with her. But she only ever appears in winter and no one nearby, including their neighbours, ever sees the girl. Is she merely a product of Jack and Mabel’s imagination? Or does she really exist but only makes herself known to the people she trusts?

Because of this dilemma, the first half of the novel is truly lovely and magical. The reader can easily suspend belief and accept that the snow child exists as a living, breathing creature made from snow. But certain events and “twists” in the story detract from that initial “magic realism” and I must admit that the wonder of this book ceased for me and it merely became a story about pioneers in the snowy wilderness.

However, as a portrait of a marriage, The Snow Child is an exceptional one. The love between Jack and Mabel, how it waxes and wanes over time, how they work together to survive harsh climatic conditions and other unforeseen events, is beautifully depicted. And their growing friendship with their nearest neighbours adds extra warmth — and much wit — to the story.

Slight storyline

My problem with this book lies in the fact that the storyline is too slight to sustain more than 400 pages.  I soon grew bored with it, and felt much of it predictable and cliched. Yet Ivey can clearly write and her strength as a storyteller shouldn’t be underestimated.

I loved her characters, though the women were definitely more fleshed out than the men, and felt compelled to discover what happened to them. And her depiction of the Alaskan wilderness is so vivid and strong, particularly during the winter, that it becomes a character in its own right.

As a story about heartbreak and hope with a strong fairy-tale element to it, The Snow Child is a lovely and evocative one. It is perfect reading material for those times when you need something light. But if you are looking for something truly magical that covers similar territory, I highly recommend Touch by Alexi Zentner, which was long-listed for the Giller Prize in 2011 and deserves a far wider readership than it seems to have attained.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Shadowstory’ by Jennifer Johnston


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.

Divided loyalties

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!

Alison Pick, Author, Book review, Czechoslovakia, Fiction, Headline Review, holocaust, Publisher, Setting

‘Far to Go’ by Alison Pick


Fiction – hardcover; Headline Review; 288 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

Alison Pick’s Far to Go has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize.

It is billed as a history of the Kindertransport — in which nearly 10,000 Jewish children were sent to Britain to escape Nazi Germany during the Second World War — but that’s really only part of the story. The heart of this novel revolves around a married couple, Pavel and Anneliese Bauer, who fail to agree on how to personally deal with the invasion of Czechoslovakia, their homeland, by the Nazis.

The pair are well-to-do non-practising Jews.

Pavel, a wealthy and successful industrialist, refuses to believe that he should do anything other than carry out his life as normal. He is fiercely nationalistic and does not accept that Czechoslovakia will be occupied. He will not kowtow to the Germans, nor feel ashamed of his Jewishness.

But Anneliese, his rather uptight glamorous wife, is frightened. She knows that the political situation does not bode well and takes defensive steps to ensure the family’s safety — moving to Prague, for instance, in the hope that things will blow over. And when they don’t, she is eager to escape eastern Europe altogether. It is only when Pavel continues to bury his head in the sand that she tries to convince him that he should at least think of his six-year-old son, Pepik, and get him on the Kindertransport.

Pepik’s trip to Britain is not so much the focus of the novel, but its climax. His journey does not begin until page 245, which is part four of a story divided into five parts.

What’s more, much of the tale is told through the eyes of a Gentile, who resides with the Bauer family. Her name is Marta and she is Pepik’s devoted nanny. She is quite naive — and young — and gets entangled in an illicit romantic dalliance with Ernst, one of Pavel’s business associates, that puts the Bauer family in danger.

But Marta is kind-hearted and loyal — if occasionally misguided — and very much devoted to her young charge. She is so well drawn that in many ways she is the life and soul of the novel, and it’s hard not to feel for her situation, caught between a young family she wishes to serve and an older man — a Nazi sympathiser — who offers her excitement, passion and intrigue.

This might sound like a fairly straightforward story, but Pick frames it in an usual way, breaking up each section with letters between family members — written after Pepik has gone to Britain — and chapters written by a modern Holocaust expert who has a mysterious connection to the Bauers. This connection isn’t revealed until the very end of the book, which makes for a fine conclusion, and adds an extra layer of meaning to an otherwise predictable plot.

Far to Go, which is based on Pick’s own family history, is not a typical Holocaust novel. Yes, it’s sad and yes, it’s filled with tragedy and betrayal. But this isn’t a story about what happened during the War, but what life was like before the Nazis banished — and exterminated — the Jews and the legacy that survivors were confronted with after their families had been destroyed.

I wouldn’t describe the book as anything particularly special — and I’m loathe to understand its inclusion on this year’s Man Booker longlist — but it’s an interesting story, well told, and there are worse ways to spend your time than reading this one.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Fool’s Sanctuary’ by Jennifer Johnston


Fiction – paperback; Headline Review; 152 pages; 1999.

For the past four years I’ve been slowly making my way through Jennifer Johnston‘s extensive back catalogue of novels. Fool’s Sanctuary, first published in 1987, is her eighth book — and my eleventh.

There’s something quite comforting about entering JJ’s fictional world, and it has nothing to do with the subject matter, which can often be dark and disturbing, but more to do with the way in which she handles words and stories, and, above all, treats her readers with intelligence.

Her prose style is not at all descriptive or explanatory, so that you often have to figure things out as you go along, and most of the action moves ahead via dialogue, some of which is extraordinarily confusing as several conversations play out between characters all at the same time. But there’s something about her style, which also interweaves first and third person narratives, that gives her novels a distinctive, familiar and occasionally ambiguous flavour. I dare say it’s a flavour you either love or hate, but for me, her novels are a special kind of heaven.

Fool’s Sanctuary is no exception, although it seems far darker than any of her more recent forays into fiction. This one is set during the Irish Civil War, circa the late 1920s, and most of the action takes place in a big house in an area on the coast north of Donegal known as Termon (which is essentially Irish for “sanctuary”, hence the novel’s title).

The story opens with an aged Miranda Martin lying on her death bed, looking back on an evening from her youth that was to shape the rest of her life. In a narrative that swings from the past to the present and back again we discover how Miranda and her tree-loving widowed father got caught up in events that were much bigger than their quiet, peaceful lives.

By page 7 we already know that Miranda’s young lover, Cathal, was taken away that night and shot in the head, but we don’t know why this happened or what events lead up to his death. It’s only when Miranda’s older brother Andrew returns home on leave from the British Army that you get the first inkling that all is not well within the family. Andrew, a survivor of the Great War, is dismissive of the Irish desire for Home Rule and belittles his father’s goals of reafforestation and land reclamation as nothing more than “romantic rubbish”.

Andrew’s colleague, the funny and likable Captain Harry Harrington, is more puzzled:

‘I think that like most Irish people I’ve ever met you just talk on and on about things you don’t understand very well. […] I didn’t mean to be r-rude. But you seem as a race to have this capacity for turning feeling into fantasy, and then you all get so worked up about oh… ah… d-dreams. Always dreams. M-maybe I’m quite wrong. Maybe when I’ve been here a little longer I’ll begin to understand what all the f-fuss is about.’

The tension between the two factions — the pair of British soldiers on leave for a few days, and the Anglo-Irish father and daughter, who still reside in Ireland — merely mirrors the nation’s predicament. But even without the politics, this is a heart-hammering drama that pits nice, well-meaning people against each other only to result in tragedy. That Johnston achieves this in just over 150 pages, without getting bogged down in extraneous detail (nor preaching), is nothing short of stunning.

As ever, what JJ delivers is a carefully crafted novella of immense power. And if you’ve not read anything by this Irish author before, this is a good a place as any to start.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Headline Review, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Setting

‘Shadows on our Skin’ by Jennifer Johnston


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.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Headline Review, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Illusionist’ by Jennifer Johnston


Fiction – paperback; Headline Review; 288 pages; 2007.

According to the O’Brien Pocket History of Irish Writers, Jennifer Johnston is “skilled in building up
and maintaining atmosphere” — and that couldn’t be more true of The Illusionist.

Initially the story appears to be a rather soft, gentle one, but there’s a fiercely dark heart beating at the centre of it and it doesn’t take long before you are enveloped in a fug of disquiet and brooding intensity.

It’s essentially a portrait of a dysfunctional marriage between two strangers that initially meet on a train in the early 1960s. While career-minded Stella, still living in the shadow of her domineering mother, is at first wary of Martyn, an illusionist, she realises that he offers her escape and adventure.

The story is told retrospectively from Stella’s point-of-view after Martyn has died in an IRA bomb attack in London “in a station wagon with a hundred and fifty white doves neatly caged in the back”. (The very image of a “magician” being blown up with his birds has a blackly comic edge to it, don’t you think?)

Her adult daughter, Robin, with whom she has a difficult relationship, comes to visit after the funeral, and it is through their conversations (or should I say arguments and tiffs?) that Stella looks back on her life with a man she did not know very well and eventually left.

From the outset, it’s pretty clear that Martyn is a little odd. Even just the way he spells his name is unusual, and despite warnings from her mother that perhaps he wasn’t the right chap to marry, Stella goes ahead anyway. And yet, it doesn’t take long for her to suspect that all is not well. She barely knows her husband, indeed she doesn’t even know what he does for a living! And when he’s at home it’s not much better: he has a locked room where he claims to be working on a show-stopping illusion but she doesn’t know what he really gets up to and why he is visited by strange men at odd hours.

When they move to the country, albeit against Stella’s wishes, she’s expected to give up her job, tend the house and produce children. She’s expected to become a doting wife, to put her interests aside in order to look after his. She’s expected not to ask her husband any questions about the mysterious and secretive life he leads. And she’s expected to put up with his long absences and unexplained trips abroad.

Stella’s only escape from this one-sided relationship comes in the form of glorious new typewriter, gifted to her by a friend and former colleague. This gives her the chance to establish a new career as a novelist, even though Martyn laughs at the idea (“A writer? What on earth do you have to write about?”)

I’m only skimming the surface of this novel, really, because there’s all kinds of issues — emotional abuse, the relationship between mothers and daughters, the right of a woman to be seen as more than just a wife and mother — and motifs — foxes, doves and illusions — that I haven’t even touched on. But in the grand canon of Jennifer Johnston’s work, this is a rather extraordinary novel dealing with important themes in a subtle and beautifully understated manner. If you’ve not read anything by Ms Johnston before, this may well be the place to start.

Andrea Levy, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Headline Review, historical fiction, Jamaica, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy


Fiction – paperback; Headline Review; 530 pages; 2004.

Small Island is one of those books that has been sitting in my reading queue for two or three years. I was prompted to dig it out when Simon wrote a rather glowing review of it. The deal was cemented when several more of you chipped in on this post and said it would make a good read for a long-haul flight. I promptly packed it in my hand luggage and began to read it on that horrendously long plane ride to Australia.

The story is a complete delight from start to finish. It’s set in London in 1948 but jumps back in time to the Second World War (and earlier) when Jamaican men joined the British forces to fight for the Mother country. There are four main characters — Brits Queenie and Bernard Bligh, and Jamaicans Hortense and Gilbert Joseph — whose individual stories are told in separate sections. The 1948 narrative links them together.

The story begins with Hortense, a highly strung young Jamaican woman, arriving in London to be reunited with her husband, Gilbert. Former air serviceman Gilbert had immigrated months earlier in order to pave the way for their new life together in a new land. But when Hortense finds him living in a tiny ill-equipped room in a lodging house her high expectations are rudely lowered.

But little does Hortense know that the lodging house is presided over by a very fair and open-minded landlady, Queenie Bligh, who ignores her fellow neighbours who don’t approve of her accepting black tenants. Although Queenie doesn’t have much choice — her husband never returned from the War and she has no other means of supporting herself — she’s determined to treat the Jamaicans that live under her roof as equals.

For Hortense and Gilbert it could have been much worse.

Small Island (the title, I assume, could equally apply to both Britain and Jamaica) shows how circumstances and history thrust these two women together, and how the partners they marry come to change their lives too. It adds up to a wonderful historical family-type drama that perfectly captures what it must have been like to live in post-war London when the cultural make-up of the city was undergoing rapid change.

What I appreciated most was Levy’s ability to show the alarming racism that occurred in England at the time. Despite the fact that Jamaica was part of the British Empire few Brits knew where Jamaica was located (several characters believe it’s in “Africa somewhere”) and fewer still wanted to see black faces on the street when Caribbean immigrants started landing on British shores. (There are parallels here with Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners, which gives voice to the Caribbean immigrant experience in the 1950s.)

They speak the same language, and yet can never be understood on the streets of London. Or, as Gilbert points out in one stand-out scene towards the end of the novel, they had fought a common enemy but were not treated as equals.

There’s a lot here, too, about the Second World War and the role that Jamaican men played in it, an intriguing slice of history that’s not widely known.

Levy is, of course, a master storyteller but she never preaches or comes across as if she is pushing a message; there’s a lightness of touch that belies the seriousness of the content. She has an eye for detail and an ear for dialogue. Her characters are believable — the uppity Hortense, the progressive Queenie, the striving-to-always-do-better Gilbert, and the stubborn-but-weak Bernard — and so very human.

Small Island won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2004, the Whitbread Book of the Year in 2004 and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2005. It has also been adapted into a two-part television drama which screened on BBC1 last month.