Reading Ireland Month continues and all this week I will be focusing on women writers from Ireland to maybe introduce you to some you may not have read or known too much about.
Like many female writers from Ireland, Jennifer Johnston is not as widely read as she should be as is often underestimated given the amount of critical acclaim she has received.
Born in Dublin in 1930, she didn’t publish her first novel until 1972 when she was 42. Since then she has published 18 novels and written numerous plays and has won the Evening Standard Best First Novel Award in 1972 for The Captain and The Kings, The Whitbread Prize in 1979 for The Old Jest and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1977 for her fourth novel Shadows on our Skin. In 2012 she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Irish Book Awards and was nominated for the position of first Irish Laureate for Fiction in 2014 – which was eventually won by Anne Enright.
Johnston was born into the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy and many of her novels are set in this world, which may go some way to explain the sometimes lack of interest in her work. Her milieu is not a fashionable one, her themes not edgy or gritty. She is often considered to be a ‘Big House’ writer, exploring the social and cultural life of the Anglo-Irish and Protestant ascendancy in the manner of Maria Edgeworth or Elizabeth Bowen. Although she draws on this tradition, Johnston’s novels instead nearly always centre on the Irish family and the relationships between children and their parents, siblings and lovers played out against the backdrop of Irish history, but never overwhelmed by it. She often explores the damage of hidden secrets and the influence of the past on the present, both from a personal and a historical point of view.
She is often described as the ‘quiet’ woman of Irish literature and has joked that the literary establishment think of her as a second rate writer, but this does her a great disservice. Her books may be ‘quiet’ in terms of their exploration of inner lives and the formation of identity, but her prose is lyrical and elegiac and her focused taut storylines which deal with gender, class, religion and politics, create a distinctive and memorable body of work.
The unusually titled This is Not a Novel deals with Johnston’s main themes of memory, loss and an inability to come to terms with the past, but the structure is what elevates a seemingly straightforward tale of the damage that family secrets can do into a subtle musing on identity and meaning. The narrator, immediately tells us;
This is not a novel. I want to make that perfectly clear. Normally when I set out to write a piece of fiction, I invent a setting, a landscape, a climate, a world, in fact, that has no reality outside the pages of the book, and into the world I insert my characters.
The reader is immediately wrong footed. If this is not a novel, then what are we reading? Is it fact? Is it fiction? Is the main character, Imogen Bailey herself a writer actually Jennifer Johnston? Johnston has admitted that inspiration for the novel’s title takes came from Magritte’s famous ‘Ceci n’est pas une pomme’ artwork;
So I thought, well if that’s not an apple, this is not a novel. Instead of working the joke into the text, I decided to put it on the cover. Of course a novel can be almost anything, but I did want this to be somewhat different to my previous novels. It is, in some ways, a sideways look at my family history, which is not to say that it’s autobiographical, but there are some strong references to my family.
Johnston as always is interested in echoes and layers. Here is a novel that we are told isn’t a novel. We have a lead character, Imogen Bailey, a writer, who is looking back and her inability to reconcile herself with the death of her brother Johnny, thirty years earlier. Johnny, a potential Olympic swimmer, was believed to have drowned at sea, but Imogen has never accepted this. His loss was traumatising for her and she stopped speaking before being admitted to a psychiatric hospital but she is now trying to find the words that she lost, by writing this book in the hope that it will lead Johnny back to her.
I would like to think that rather than a scrappy memoir, it might be a cri de coeur, a hopeful message sent out into the world, like a piece of paper in a bottle dropped into the sea; my hope being that my brother Johnny, somewhere in the world, I believe, may read it and may pick up the nearest telephone
The story is addressed to Johnny and in order to construct her narrative, Imogen trawls through old photographs, letters and diaries, the ephemera of her family life and discovers echoes and reflections between the life of Johnny and the life of her great Uncle Harry who was sent to fight in WW1 when his homosexuality threatened to bring shame on the family.
I am constantly astonished by the fact that once you start to trawl through the waters of memory the strangest things get caught in your net. Are they true or false these recollections that suddenly seem so clear in your mind?
In trying to find a solid truth of what happened to her brother, Imogen explores the life of her Uncle Harry and sees how family expectation led to his downfall, in a similar way to Johnny. As she pieces together her family’s past, she becomes aware of the tragic echoes that sound down the generations. Of fathers who push too hard; mothers who don’t care enough and young men struggling to come to terms with who they are. This is not a novel about the past, but about how we interpret the past and as such it becomes clear that Imogen will only ever find the proof that Johnny is still alive, because it is the only truth she can believe.
Are we all condemned to be infected by our past?
Her whole identity is tied up in Johnny’s continuing existence so her memory must always lead her to the same conclusion. There will be no dramatic ending for Imogen, as the drama is in the past, rather she needs to find a kind of inner peace and by accepting Johnny may still be out there, she is also paradoxically, letting him go.
This is Not a Novel is, to be fair, a quiet book but Johnston doesn’t need high drama or tension to make this story more compelling. The writing has an intimacy and complexity that creates a very personal narrative without succumbing to sentimentality. Of her work, Johnston says,
I’d like people to find the small truths in my work and go on doing so
That is the great achievement of This is Not A Novel. It is a work that lights on the small truths to illuminate a greater understanding of families and the damage they can do.
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