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 (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 (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).
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?