6 Degrees of Separation

Six degrees of Separation: From ‘What are you Going Through’ to ‘Travelling in a Strange Land’

It’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate).

As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘What Are You Going Through’ by Sigrid Nunez (2021)

At last! A starting book for Six Degrees that I have actually read! According to the blurb, this is a tale about two friends, one of whom asks the other to be there when she chooses to die euthanasia style, but it is so much more complex and convoluted than that. This is a story about stories — the stories we hear, the stories we write, the stories we tell ourselves. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” the opening line from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, is a constant refrain…

‘The Good Soldier’ by Ford Madox Ford (1915)

Set in the Edwardian era, this novel explores the complex and intertwined relationships between two wealthy and seemingly perfect couples who meet every year at a German spa resort. But one of the men, the “good soldier” of the title, likes much younger women and takes several mistresses, while his wife turns a blind eye.

‘The Good Son’ by Paul McVeigh (2015)

This is not a story about adultery; my link is a bit more obvious — it’s simply another book with “good” in the title! It’s a coming-of-age story set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles and is narrated by a schoolboy who’s a smart kid with big dreams. When he gets caught up in events bigger than himself, he must act as the good son to save his family. It’s a really touching tale.

‘Shadows on Our Skin’ by Jennifer Johnston (1977)

The only novel by Jennifer Johnston to be nominated for the Booker Prize, this is another coming-of-age story set during The Troubles. It follows a Derry schoolboy who develops a platonic relationship with a female teacher and then discovers his world opening up…

‘The Temple House Vanishing’ by Rachel Donohue (2020)

A friendship between a teacher and student is key to the brooding mystery in this deeply atmospheric Irish novel published last year. The narrative swings backwards and forwards between the present day and the early 1990s as a journalist investigates the disappearance of a schoolgirl and her charismatic art teacher from an exclusive Irish boarding school 25 years earlier.

‘The Everlasting Sunday’ by Robert Lukins (2018)

Here’s yet another atmospheric tale set in a school in days gone by. It’s about a teenage boy banished to a reform school — based in a Shropshire manor house — because he has been “found by trouble”. Here he meets a cohort of similarly troubled boys, alliances are formed and tensions rise, culminating in a shocking denouement. Thanks to the setting — the UK’s notorious “big freeze” of 1962/63 — this book is chilling in more ways than one.

Travelling in a strange land

‘Travelling in a Strange Land’ by David Park (2018)

A “big freeze” also features in this novel which is set during a severe winter snowstorm. Wedding photographer Tom drives across the UK in treacherous conditions to rescue his son stranded in student lodgings. But that road journey is merely a metaphor for another journey Tom has recently had to make: that of a newly bereaved parent grappling with the death of his oldest son and the legacy of guilt and bewilderment and loss he now feels. It’s a beautiful, eloquent, emotional read.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about euthanasia to one about a parent’s bereavement, via tales about misbehaving men, young boys caught up in The Troubles, a Gothic mystery set in a boarding school and another one set in a reform school.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

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…

Author, Book lists, Jennifer Johnston

13 books by Jennifer Johnston

Today, January 12, marks Irish novelist and playwright Jennifer Johnston’s 90th birthday.

Long-time followers of this blog will know she’s my favourite living writer, but she’s under-rated and little known outside of her native Ireland. Perhaps it doesn’t help that most of the covers of her novels are abysmally old-fashioned and somewhat dated so that if you ever saw her titles in a bookshop or library, and you were unfamiliar with her work, you probably wouldn’t even pick them up.

And yet open her books and you will discover richly drawn worlds peopled by complicated characters caught up in changing circumstances often involving the decline of the Protestant Anglo-Irish ascendancy. If you think that sounds dull, think again. As this article in the Irish Times from 2017 explains, her work…

…deals with family sins and human frailty within the context of the turbulent history of 20th-century Ireland. The scope of her novels includes examinations of gender, class, religion and politics. Her stories involve characters on both ends of the aging spectrum, from youth and adolescence to old age and inevitable decline. They are Protestant and Catholic, male and female, urban and rural.

What makes them so wonderful, in my view, is her prose style. Not a word is wasted. It’s sparse but evocative. There are few descriptions or explanations, so that you often have to figure things out as you go along, and most of the action moves ahead via dialogue (she’s also a well-regarded playwright), some of which is 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.

She’s written 19 novels in total. I’ve read 13 and am saving up the ones I haven’t yet opened. That’s because I can’t bear the thought of running out of Jennifer Johnston novels to read!

Here are the ones I’ve reviewed, in chronological order by publication date. As ever, hyperlinks take you to my review in full. (Note, you can see a full bibliography on my favourite author’s page.)

The Gates (1973)
When 16-year-old Minnie finishes her expensive education in England she returns home to Ireland to live with her aged uncle while she figures out what to do with the rest of her life. When she hatches a plan with a local lad to steal the extravagant gates that belong to the English Italianate-style mansion house in which she grew up, you know there’s a disaster in the offing…

Shadows on Our Skin (1977)
Set in Derry during The Troubles, this is not typical Jennifer Johnston fare, mainly because it focuses on a young schoolboy (usually her novels are about women) whose freedom is curtailed by his mother’s fear that he will be shot, whether accidentally or on purpose, by the British soldiers that patrol the area. It’s only when Joe meets a young local schoolteacher, the lonely Kathleen Doherty, that his world is suddenly opened up. This is a beautifully rendered tale about innocence and thwarted potential in a violent domestic setting — and one of the finest novels you will read set during The Troubles. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1977.

The Old Jest (1979)
Set immediately after the Great War, 18-year-old orphan Nancy lives with relatives in an Irish village by the sea. Secretly in love with a man who has eyes for someone else, she spends her time mooching on the beach, where she unwittingly stumbles into a hideout that she adopts for herself, with unforeseen consequences. This short novel won the Whitbread Book Award in 1979.

The Christmas Tree by Jennifer Johnston

The Christmas Tree (1981)
Probably my favourite Jennifer Johnston novel, it focuses on 45-year-old Constance, a failed writer, who returns to her childhood home in Dublin after she is diagnosed with a terminal disease shortly after the birth of her first child. As she prepares to die, Constance reminiscences about her child’s father, a Polish Jew with whom she had a brief dalliance, and wonders if her life might have turned out differently had she made other choices and enjoyed a closer relationship with her own parents and sister. It sounds morbid but it is a totally absorbing read, and one of the best novels I have ever read about mortality and wringing the most out of life.

Fool’s Sanctuary (1988)
An elderly lady lies on her death bed and recalls an eventful evening from her past which shaped the course of her life. The narrative swings backward and forwards in time as she recalls how men invaded the big house where she lived with her father, a farmer obsessed with planting trees, during the Irish Civil War and took her young lover and shot him in the head for no apparent reason. It’s only when her older brother returns home on leave from the British Army shortly after that you get the first inkling that the family is caught up in events bigger than themselves…

The Invisible Worm (1992)
This is one of Jennifer Johnston’s darker novels, as it focuses primarily on the long-lasting impact of child abuse on one woman’s life. Despite the somewhat horrific subject matter, this is a delicately realised and completely unsentimental tale about a 37-year-old single woman living as a recluse by the sea, immersing herself in books and gardening, and enjoying the friendship of a local priest to whom she confesses her troubled past.

The Illusionist (1995)
Loosely based on the fairytale Bluebeard, this atmospheric, brooding book centres on a dysfunctional marriage between a career-minded woman and her magician husband. It explores 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 — in a subtle and beautifully understated manner. If you’ve not read anything by Jennifer Johnston before, this may well be the place to start.

Two Moons (1998)
Part comedy and part family drama, this is one of Jennifer Johnston’s more unusual books, mainly because it has an element of magic realism that gives it an atypical flavour. The story centres on three generations of women, two of whom live together in a house overlooking Dublin Bay. The family equilibrium is thrown off-kilter by the appearance of an angel, who can only be viewed by the elderly grandmother, and a surprise weekend visit by a relative whose new boyfriend leaves a lasting impression. It’s kind of kooky and bonkers, but I have fond memories of reading it…

The Gingerbread Woman (2000)
This was my first Jennifer Johnston novel and I liked it so much I promptly set out to read more by her. (The rest, they say, is history.) It tells the story of two lonely 30-somethings, both coming to terms with personal tragedies, who forge a tentative and rocky friendship, almost by accident, on a clifftop overlooking Dublin Bay. It is not a romance novel — the friendship between the two is purely platonic — but it is a novel about the fragility of the human heart, grief, loss, hope and second chances.

This is not a novel by Jennifer Johnston

This is not a Novel (2002)
A woman inherits a trunk full of family correspondence and mementos, many of them from her grandparents and great grandparents, and begins to work her way through the material. As she does so, she figures out her relative’s involvement in the First World War, as well as what really happened to her brother, who is thought to have drowned as a teenager even though he was a strong swimmer with eyes on the Olympics. This is a rich, elegiac tapestry of family history and deeply held secrets with a brooding mystery at its heart.

Foolish Mortals (2007)
Unusually for a Jennifer Johnston novel, this one is set in modern times. It tells the story of a dysfunctional family (filled with eccentric characters) brought together following a tragedy — a car accident that results in a fatality. The main focus is on Henry, a survivor of the crash, who has amnesia and is trying to figure out what happened and to piece his past together. This is one of the author’s more accessible novels, but it’s not her best.

Truth or Fiction (2009)
An elderly writer who has fallen into obscurity is interviewed by a journalist on the eve of his 90th birthday about his life and work. What results is a fascinating account of a character who is not what he seems — you are never quite sure how much of what he reveals is truth and how much of it is fiction. This short novel is said to be based on Jennifer Johnston’s own father, the playwright Denis Johnston (1901-1984).

Shadowstory (2011)
Polly’s father is killed in the Second World War. As she negotiates that tricky time between childhood and adulthood without the steady hand of her dad to guide her, she finds her loyalties divided between her Dublin-based mother, who has remarried, and her father’s family, who live in a Big House in County Clare. Troubled and a bit lost, she finds companionship with her uncle, who is only a few years older, but when he becomes a Communist and flees to Cuba, her loyalties are divided yet again: she is made to swear never to tell anyone where he has gone. This is a fast-paced novel full of atmosphere and family tension.

A Sixpenny Song (2013)
This short novel, easily read in a sitting, tells the story of a woman who returns to the family home in Dublin for the first time in more than a decade following the death of her father. As she prepares to put the house on the market, she begins to unearth secrets about her parent’s marriage that give new meaning to past experiences and her own childhood. It’s a little bit predictable in places but overall this is the kind of tale about fathers, daughters and family secrets that Jennifer Johnston excels at.

Have you read any of Jennifer Johnston’s novels? If not, can I tempt you to give her a try?

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.

20 books of summer (2017)

20 Books of Summer

20 books logoIn a bid to read more books from my always-growing TBR, I’ve decided to join in this year’s “20 Books of Summer” challenge, which Cathy runs at 746 Books.

The idea is to read 20 books already in your possession between 1 June and 3 September. I’m bending the rules slightly and won’t start until next weekend (I’ve got a couple of other books on the go at the moment that need to be finished first), so plan to finish on or around 11 September.

I’ve had a fun time going through my shelves to select the books I want to read*. They’re all ones I’ve purchased (in other words, they’re not copies sent to me for review) and some have been sitting here for years. They’re all literary fiction and I’ve tried to go for a mix of male and female writers, including some Miles Franklin prize-winners and a couple that feature in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

The books I hope to read are as follows and have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname:

  • ‘Mr Bridge’ by Evan S. Connell
  • ‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ by Janice Galloway
  • ‘Lilian’s Story’ by Kate Grenville
  • ‘Provocation’ by Charlotte Grimshaw
  • ‘Hangover Square’ by Patrick Hamilton
  • ‘Power Without Glory’ by Frank Hardy
  • ‘The Long Prospect’ by Elizabeth Harrower
  • ‘Our Souls at Night’ by Kent Haruf
  • ‘The Dead Lake’ by Hamid Ismailov
  • ‘Grace and Truth’ by Jennifer Johnston
  • ‘Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
  • The Other Side of the Bridge’ by Mary Lawson
  • ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’ by Jon McGregor
  • ‘The Glorious Heresies’ by Lisa McInerney
  • ‘Journey to the Stone Country’ by Alex Miller
  • ‘Ancient Tillage’ by Raduan Nassar
  • ‘The Essex Serpent’ by Sarah Perry
  • ‘The Hungry Grass’ by Richard Power
  • ‘Stoner’ by John Williams
  • ‘Shallows’ by Tim Winton

20 books of summer pile

You can find out more about 20 Books of Summer at Cathy’s blog and see who else is participating on this linky page.

Have you read any of the books I’ve chosen? Any suggestions on which one to start with first?

* Note, I reserve the right to swap out any of these books with my existing TBR pile if I find any of these ones don’t work for me or don’t suit my mood at the time.

Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Setting, Tinder Press

‘A Sixpenny Song’ by Jennifer Johnston


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.

Standard trademarks

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.

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!

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.