Jennifer Johnston

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Valentine Cunningham (review date 15 April 1977)

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SOURCE: “Female Economy,” in New Statesman, Vol. 93, No. 2404, April 15, 1977, p. 498.

[In the following positive review, Cunningham compliments Johnston's skilled prose in Shadows on Our Skin.]

More long-distance relations and soppy-minded well-wishers are poised maieutically about Jane Austen's unfinished The Watsons than medieval angelologists might decently have risked covening on the head of one of their theological pins. A. N. Other, assisted by a couple of great-great-great nieces, re-doing (the second re-do; the first was by the niece's grand-daughter) niece Catherine Austen's novel of 1850, putatively based on knowledge of what The Watsons was to have been, allegedly gleaned from Jane's sister Cassandra and Catherine's step-mother (Jane's friend) Martha: why must the pin-heads shore their ruins about a great writer's fragments? It's quite a different story when, say, Kafka has actually written all the bits Max Brod sorts out, or when Wives and Daughters is left with only a couple of steps still to totter so that almost any old editor could safely hazard their destination. But of our volume's 26 chapters Jane Austen has only supplied a disproportionately meagre five.

What a five, though. Pre-Mansfield Park and Emma stuff, admittedly, and so not quite managing to bring off the arrival of the aristocratic Osborne set at the fustian delights of the Dorking ball that Emma Watson has been escorted to by her friends the Edwards, without sounding a mite like the juvenile Charlotte Brontë. But setting in motion a tough-minded Emma and a kind Elizabeth with a decrepit father and two sharply selfish sisters, and an awful sister-in-law to cope with. And, to boot, no money and few real marriage prospects. ‘I would rather be teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like,’ says Emma; ‘I would rather do anything than be teacher at a school,’ ripostes Elizabeth. That's the authentic Austen note of spinsterly desperation. So is Emma's reminder to Lord Osborne that ‘Female economy will do a great deal, my lord, but it cannot turn a small income into a large one.’ These heroines spare no one, not even themselves. Nor does their author go in for kindly sparing:

Robert was carelessly kind, as became a prosperous man and a brother: more intent on settling with the post-boy, inveighing against the exorbitant advance in posting, and pondering over a doubtful half crown, than on welcoming a sister who was no longer likely to have any property for him to get the direction of.

More kin than kind, indeed. Emma ‘was beginning to feel that a family party might be the worst of all parties.’

Most promisingly biting starters, these: but between niece and great-great-great nieces the family party has contrived a very un-Austen carry-on—the worst of all parties, in fact. Emma is plausibly sucked into the Osborne world and, still more plausibly, eventually marries Osborne's old tutor, the Rev. Mr Howard. But the imbroglio of jealous mother, dandified hangers-on, overheard troth-plighting, and (faint shades of Lydia and Wickham) threat of breach-of-promise action that nets a husband for another of the sisters, is sub-Victorian rubbish of the worst kind. Reproaches fail one. It's lower than Brontë-juvenile; it's a sub-Disraeli plot with no redeeming smartnesses of chat; it's Silver Fork with flaunted tarnish. And none of the limp attempts to instil the right tone (a mention of Johnson's Dictionary, a sneer or two at Methodisticality, the odd flash of spirited hatred) works. What this The Watsons amounts to is a travesty, a Mona Lisa with moustaches.

With relief, then, to a couple...

(This entire section contains 968 words.)

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of fictions that are all their author's own work, even if each is little more than a short-story conception spun out nearer a conventional novel length. Jennifer Johnston writes with the deceptive fluency that only comes of the tightest control, and produces inShadows on Our Skin an extremely attractive story about modern Londonderry whose superbly casual calm almost belies its insider's grasp of the hellish detail. Her account of Joseph Logan, an inattentive schoolboy, already promising to be a great wordsmith, who cannily treads the exploding minefield laid down by his bedridden father's generation of Free State heroes and his brother Brendan's Provo chums, is gripping (especially when he's left holding his brother's gun early one morning as the British Army bashes in the front-room windows). It's also movingly convincing (you simply don't, it's made clear, just turn over your Provo kin, Bishops and Peace-Marchers notwithstanding: Ulster's more complicated than that). And, to underline the complexity, we're left not knowing why Kathleen, lonely schoolteacher, befriends Joe and Brendan, nor what her engagement to a British soldier has to do with the interest in them she keeps up until the Boyos cut off her hair and send her packing.

Overtly more pretentious, Dominic Cooper's Sunrise goes for a sort of William Goldingesque primitivism. Munro, a slow-thinking Scot in his late fifties, quits the Kirk during his daughter's wedding service, fires his council house (his wife's plastic flowers and mantelpiece of knick-knackery particularly infuriate him), and runs for freedom. He's pretty earthy to start with: a forester, his hands (Cooper's good at this sort of description) are ‘knotty and cut’ (his fellow-parishioners have faces ‘creased and scabbed’). But in his flight from his native island to his sister Bessie's croft, and then, hunted by imaginary agents of the law, scraping for very life across loch and hill, he's reduced still further to the level (it's continually harped on) of a beast. Occasionally Sunrise reads like The Thirty-Nine Steps minus its tension, and the hard, friendless consonantality of the world that Munro bangs against (a blunt stutter of skarts,clegs,graip,fank,bothy,stabs and all the rest) can get you down as Hopkins does. But, all in all, yielding man and unyielding nature are compellingly done.


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Jennifer Johnston 1930-

(Full name Jennifer Prudence Johnston) Irish novelist, playwright, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Johnston's career through 2000. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 7.

An award-winning author, Johnston has built her career around writing about the cultural and social turmoil in her home country of Ireland. She has achieved wide critical acclaim for her tightly written, sparse novels, although her work has been slow to secure wide popular readership. Her thematic material has ranged from the political to the personal, but critics have particularly noted her strength at portraying the impact of social conflicts on family relations. Johnston's best known and most highly regarded novels are The Invisible Worm (1992), The Illusionist (1995), and Two Moons (1998). Several of her books have been adapted for the theatre and television.

Biographical Information

Johnston was born on January 12, 1930 in Dublin, Ireland, the elder of two children. Her father, Denis Johnston, was a well known Irish playwright, and her mother, Shelagh Richards, was an actress, director, and producer. After her parents divorced when she was a child, Johnston had little contact with her father. During her youth, Johnston began to write small skits and pantomimes, but she did not return to writing until much later in her life. In the 1940s she attended Trinity College in Dublin, though she never graduated. She married solicitor Ian Smyth in 1951 and together they had four children. After pursuing an acting career, Johnston began concentrating on writing professionally, a decision which she credits with ending her first marriage. She was unable to find a publisher for her first novel, The Gates (1973), until after her second novel, The Captains and the Kings was successfully published in 1972. Johnston won the Pitman Prize that same year. In 1976 Johnston married David Gilliland, a solicitor and father of five children by a previous marriage. In 1979, Johnston won the Whitbread Award for The Old Jest (1979) and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for her novel Shadows on Our Skin (1977).

Major Works

Johnston has built her career around examinations of the issues surrounding the Irish movement for independence from Britain and the resulting political tensions and violence. However, in contrast to many of her peers, Johnston primarily focuses on the impact of these events on individual lives and on the well-being of the family. Johnston's characters tend to be creative figures such as aspiring writers, artists, and musicians. They seek to understand the relationship between life and art. Often, the subjects of their art forms are personal, drawn from their own families, societies, and choices. Johnston's second published novel, The Gates, focuses on Minnie McMahon, the orphaned daughter of a Communist journalist and his Irish wife. After attending school in England, Minnie returns to Ireland to live with her alcoholic uncle. Minnie wants to become a writer and to fund her new career, so she plots with a friend to steal the gates of her uncle's dilapidated estate and sell them to a wealthy American. Several of Johnston's novels are set on large country estates, sometimes referred to as “The Big House.” Against this backdrop, Johnston explores how her characters deal with the implications of lost innocence, betrayal, isolation, and the ramifications of living in a society that is filled with social and political divisions. In How Many Miles to Babylon? (1974) Johnston moves her setting from the rural estates of Ireland to recount the story of three soldiers in World War I. The novel is narrated by Alexander Moore, a young Irishman who is awaiting execution for killing a fellow soldier. Moore has shot the soldier to spare him from being executed for desertion. Many of Johnston's novels focus in some way on topics of war. Two of her novels are set during World War I. Additionally, Shadows on Our Skin and The Railway Station Man (1985) both examine the modern Irish Republican Army (IRA), and The Christmas Tree (1981) focuses on the Holocaust. However, throughout her career, Johnston's works have turned increasingly to the personal aspects of life in Ireland. In The Illusionist, Stella McNamara separates from her husband—a magician who enjoys keeping the details of his life a mystery from his spouse. Only years later, after her husband has died and she has become a writer, does Stella begin to realize the power of shaping her own reality and creating illusions with her words. The Invisible Worm focuses on a troubled young woman, Laura Quinlan, who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Laura's anxiety stems from memories of the horrors of her childhood and her family's checkered heritage. Johnston often uses turbulent family dynamics in her novels as a metaphor for the myriad social problems facing Ireland in the past and present.

Critical Reception

Johnston has earned a great deal of critical attention, and the brevity of her books and the sparseness of her prose have been at the center of most critical debates regarding her work. Some reviewers have praised her writing as precise, highly textured, and efficient. Julia Epstein commended the prose in The Christmas Tree, stating that Johnston “coils her language so tightly that she achieves the compression we usually associate with cryptic, photographic sort of poetry.” However, several reviewers have taken issue with numerous inaccuracies in her writing, such as misspellings and erroneous geographical and cultural details. Some critics have also cited Johnston's reliance on stock characterizations and inadequate plot development as elements that detract from the impact of her novels. Deborah Singmaster, for example, lamented the lack of character development in The Invisible Worm, calling it “the penalty paid for the author's pointillist method.” In general, critics have more favorably received Johnston's later works than her earlier novels.

Francis King (review date 22 September 1979)

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SOURCE: “Fantastic,” in Spectator, Vol. 243, No. 7889, September 22, 1979, p. 24.

[In the following review, King offers a generally positive assessment of The Old Jest, but criticizes certain unbelievable elements in the story.]

We all have lists of things that, though there is nothing intrinsically wrong with them, just happen not to be to our tastes. My own list would include restaurants in which the service is better than the food and the décor than either; cars, however large or powerful, with only two doors ocean-cruises; and literary fantasies. The last of these aversions makes it impossible for me fully to enjoy Orlando,Lady into Fox or The Master and Margarita, much though I admire Virginia Woolf, David Garnett and Mikhail Bulgakov, and it also makes it difficult for me to be sure of being fair to Wild Nights, much though I admire Emma Tennant too.

This novel functions simultaneously on two levels: the realistic and the fantastic On the realistic level, this is an account of a family of landed gentry—father, mother, child—living on their estate in an inhospitable valley in the North. Each autumn, they receive a visit from the father's sister, Zita. Since she brings with her the ghosts of the past that she and her brother shared together but from which the brother's wife is excluded, her presence has about it a mingled attraction and disquiet for the child narrator. The mansion, from the far corners of which all life has been perpetually withdrawing, to concentrate itself into a smaller and smaller space, suddenly fills up again with the footsteps of servants long since dead.

After Aunt Zita's visit, there follows the Christmas one of the mother's sister, Thelma, a woman of a totally different stamp. Unlike Aunt Zita, she awakes no ghosts; she belongs to the present and there is nothing of the sorceress about her, as there is about Zita.

After Christmas, the family, yearning in its northern fastness for the long-delayed Spring, makes its way south to the house in which Uncle Rainbow—in fact, not an uncle but a cousin—lives with his faithful housekeeper, Letty. A long line has trickled to its end with Uncle Rainbow, who effetely spends most of his time lying on his bed, who has done nothing distinctive and who has produced no issue.

On the fantastic level, Aunt Zita—a female equivalent of Forrest Reid's Uncle Stephen—is a true sorceress, who transports the enraptured child to mysterious trysts and secret celebrations. The villagers dread and deride her, burning her effigy as a witch on the night of their Hallowe'en ball. On the same fantastic level, there is Uncle Wilhelmina, who is arrested after wandering down the main street of the village, stick in hand, asking to be beaten; and many of the descriptions of life with Uncle Rainbow, ‘in a house in a maze of tall hedges’ some-where between Glastonbury and Stonehenge.

In its combination of what one would guess to be autobiographical elements and an intensely poetic style of presentation, this novel is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. The general hyperaesthesia and elaboration of imagery also recall that masterpiece—in particular, its middle section, masterly to some and irritating to others, in which Virginia Woolf describes how the days, months, and eventually years eat into a deserted house. Miss Tennant can survive this comparison cum summa laude. I must confess that, as I have indicated, this kind of pale, smoky Lapsang Souchong, served in the finest of bone-china, is not quite my cup of tea; but to those for whom it is, Miss Tennant's skilful decoction should give a lot of pleasure.

More to my personal taste is Jennifer Johnston's The Old Jest, a realistic novel about a young girl coming to painful maturity in perpetually troubled Ireland soon after the first World war. Nancy is 18 but, like many 18-year-olds of that period, she behaves, in her innocent gaucheness and vulnerability, more like a 12-year-old today. An orphan, she lives with her kind, slightly pathetic maiden aunt, and her grandfather, a former general and now senile, in a delapidated and mortgaged house. Miss Johnston's evocation of the day-to-day life of this family and their neighbours is always splendid. The aunt returns slightly tipsy from race-meetings; the old man spends his time chanting hymns and watching the nearby railway line through binoculars; the young girl moons over a conventional, virginal young stock-broker, who is himself in love with a self-composed girl, adept at the piano.

It is when Miss Johnston introduces a mysterious stranger—is he perhaps the heroine's father?—and the complications of insurrection against British rule, that the realism, elsewhere so rich, thins and drains away. I found it hard to believe in the emaciated, war-scarred intruder, who says things to the girl like ‘I am as unknown to you as a locked room might be’ and even harder to believe in the murderous conspiracy into which he sweeps her up, until, by the last page, she is herself committed to the cause of revolution. Whereas all the other details of Nancy's life—her nail-biting, her solitary walks by the sea, her romantic yearnings—are totally convincing, there is something factitious about the melodramatic core of her story. This is a pity, because in every other way this is a first-rate novel.

Principal Works

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The Captains and the Kings (novel) 1972

The Gates (novel) 1973

How Many Miles to Babylon? (novel) 1974

Shadows on Our Skin (novel) 1977

The Old Jest (novel) 1979

The Christmas Tree (novel) 1981

The Railway Station Man (novel) 1985

Fool's Sanctuary (novel) 1988

The Invisible Worm (novel) 1992

The Illusionist (novel) 1995

Three Monologues (play) 1995

The Desert Lullaby: A Play in Two Acts (play) 1996

Finbar's Hotel [with others] (short stories) 1997

Two Moons (novel) 1998

The Essential Jennifer Johnston (collected works) 1999

The Gingerbread Woman (novel) 2000

Mike Poole (review date 18 September 1981)

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SOURCE: “The Victims,” in New Statesman, September 18, 1981, p. 26.

[In the following excerpt, Poole praises the dignity and skill with which Johnston portrays death and illness in The Christmas Tree.]

Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor, described illness as the ‘night-side of life.’ She went on to quote the American psychiatrist Karl Menninger: ‘Illness is in part what the world has done to a victim, but in larger part it is what the victim has done with his world and with himself.’ This existential understanding opens up a bleak perspective. Illness becomes a sort of contemporary equivalent of the mystic's dark night of the soul, a condition that calls everything into question.

This week's batch of fiction sees two very different novelists attempting to explore illness as a metaphor for change, revaluation and, paradoxically, renewal. As the dying cancer victim in Jennifer Johnston's The Christmas Tree puts it, ‘there has to be a pattern,’ and recovering it can be almost as important as ‘recovering’ in the medical sense.

Jennifer Johnston's spare, economical style marks her work off from the rather lush, elliptical mode now fashionable with younger Irish novelists such as Neil Jordan and Desmond Hogan. And here, in her sixth novel, it accords perfectly with her subject: the deathbed narration of a failed writer trying to make sense of a none too happy life.

Like many characters in contemporary Irish fiction, Constance Keating has lived a life of internal exile, alienated from both family and Ireland itself. Returning to her parents' home in Dublin with an illegitimaté baby and the news that she has leukemia, she finds that even in death she is not going to be allowed a true identity of her own. Her mother regards the illness merely as a further confirmation of waywardness, ‘you always had to be difficult’; while her married sister simply wants her hospitalised and out of the way.

In these circumstances the prospect of death lose its sting: Constance's problem is rather how am I to die as I have lived? A Christmas tree in the corner of the sickroom decked out with fairy lights as a reminder of childhood and illuminating the ‘night-side’ comes to symbolise both her defiance and the quiet dignity with which she prepares herself for a lonely death. Dying, perversely becomes a kind of affirmation of self; a way, finally, to take responsibility for all the choices that have marked her out as different. And in a novel that deals so candidly with the pathology of dying, one is grateful indeed for the grace-like quality of those final moments. …

Caroline Moorehead (review date 17 October 1981)

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SOURCE: “Peeking Order,” in Spectator, Vol. 247, No. 7997, October 17, 1981, p. 27.

[In the following excerpt, Moorehead offers a positive assessment of The Christmas Tree.]

Jennifer Johnston's great strength has always been that she makes her characters matter: however confused, they are strong people, with clear and sympathetic identities. Her spare, tight novels, with their few people and scenes, also always manage to convey a larger canvas, a great deal more, usually about her own country, Ireland.

Having said that, The Christmas Tree could well have turned out unacceptably bleak. It is, with little respite, the story of a woman dying of leukemia. More than that, she is 45, alone, having just given birth to an illegitimate daughter, who now she will never see again. The baby was a conscious decision, a plan for the coming 25 years. That she will not live to enjoy this future does not particularly appal her: Constance Keating, as she says repeatedly, is not afraid of death itself. It is how she handles the last weeks that is the subject of the novel.

If The Christmas Tree manages to avoid relentless horror, and it does, it is due to Jennifer Johnston's particular gift for combining convincing cynicism with pathos. She is a skilful writer, using short flashbacks—most often dreams and memories produced under the influence of pain-killing drugs—in such a way that each page widens the picture. You start with a solitary woman, dying alone; you finish with a past, a history, great tenderness and no sentimentality. Afterwards, it is hard to remember what was written, and what was added by the imagination. …

Further Reading

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Boland, Maura. “Fool's Sanctuary: No Peace in Ireland.” Chicago Tribune (18 January 1988): section 5, p. 3.

Boland commends the well-composed dialogue in Fool's Sanctuary, but argues that Johnston's lack of popular success may be due to her detached tone.

Dooley, Susan. “A Sad Story of Ireland's Divided House.” Washington Post Book World (24 January 1988): 10.

Dooley offers a positive assessment of Fool's Sanctuary.

Hemingway, Lorian. “A Woman's Hall of Horrors.” Washington Post Book World (26 August 1993): C3.

Hemingway, author and granddaughter of famed novelist Ernest Hemingway, offers a laudatory assessment of The Invisible Worm, calling it “a novel rare as snow in summer.”

Hogan, Desmond. “City of Visions.” New Statesman (10 October 1980): 23.

Hogan offers a negative assessment of The Old Jest, calling the novel “unconvincing.”

Ingoldby, Grace. “Spook Time.” New Statesman (25 October 1984): 31.

Ingoldby offers a positive assessment of The Railway Station Man.

Johnston, Jennifer with Eleanor Wachtel. “Jennifer Johnston Interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel.” Queens Quarterly 104, No. 2 (Summer 1997): 319–29.

Johnston discusses her family background, Irish history, and The Illusionist.

Kenny, John. “Big Houses, Little Pieces.” Times Literary Supplement, No. 5056 (17 December 1999): 20.

A review of The Essential Jennifer Johnston, in which Kenny argues that Johnson's shorter and more minimal works are often her strongest.

O'Faolain, Julia. “An Airborne Charm.” Times Literary Supplement, No. 4823 (8 September 1995): 5.

O'Faolain offers a positive review of The Illusionist, describing Johnston's prose as being full of “wit, resource and an adventurous eye.”

Shrimpton, Nicholas. “Womb's Eye.” New Statesman 98, No. 2536 (26 October 1979): 643–44.

Shrimpton offers a negative assessment of The Old Jest.

Additional coverage of Johnston's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85–88; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 92; Contemporary Novelists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 14; and Literature Resource Center.

Julia Epstein (review date 9 May 1982)

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SOURCE: “‘Finish, Good Lady; The Bright Day Is Done,’” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XII, No. 19, May 9, 1982, p. 4.

[In the following positive review, Epstein compliments the efficient and textured prose in The Christmas Tree.]

Not well known on this side of the Atlantic, the Irish writer Jennifer Johnston has a solid, and well-deserved, readership in Great Britain. The Christmas Tree is her tense, spare, highly-textured sixth novel. In it Johnston coils her language so tightly that she achieves the compression we usually associate with a cryptic, photographic sort of poetry. Her language intercepts with Emily Dickinson's, a “certain Slant of light” that anatomizes landscape and memory.

The Christmas Tree unfolds in a series of vignettes, flashbacks, and waking dreams that define its dying narrator, Constance Keating. A solitary wanderer, Constance has recently returned to her family's home in Ireland from a trip to Italy. There she had an affair with Jacob Weinberg, a Polish Jew and stateless fellow-wanderer who has survived the Nazi concentration camps and possesses the same need as she to remember and memorialize. When Constance leaves Italy, she is pregnant. Her discovery that she is dying of leukemia occurs shortly after the birth of her daughter. She wishes to die at home, in the dark, on her own terms. “I don't want to have to be brave and grateful and helpless,” she says. “I just want to die.”

This novel concerns the process of that dying, the retreat into neutrality, the centering of the mind's life as it closes around Constance's ravaged, dwindling body. She obeys the rhythms of her body in its choreography of death, “a vast pattern of pain, like some formal dance, advancing and retreating slow turns, advance, bow, return. Pause. Then the rhythm starting again beating in the pit of your body, advance, retreat, turn slowly, turn, pause.” She drinks whiskey to dull the pain momentarily, and describes its onset with a stunned, detached affection: “The animal inside me began its evening meal.” Two refrains punctuate the narrator's dying—her mother's ghost appears to her often, interrupting their conversations to ask “It is Constance, isn't it?” and Constance frequently returns to Shakespeare's lines about dying, “Finish, good lady; the bright day is done and we are for the dark.”

Darkness plays a large role in The Christmas Tree, as its protagonist fights to die in the shadows, out of the hospital glare of “shining sheets and lights and hands.” The Christmas tree a friend installs for her glows with tiny blue electric lights that produce opalescent shadows in her room. This darkness—lest she “fade into the common light of day,” as Wordsworth wrote—keeps all mawkishness and nostalgia from the narrative and, as blindness begets internal vision, here darkness stirs Constance to an unsentimental assessment of her past.

Johnston draws her characters with economy and precision. Jacob's tortured hands, broken by the Nazis, his palms “savaged by deep sad lines,” serve as his emblem, representing honorable survival. Constance's irritating, self-absorbed sister Bibi bustles in and out of the sickroom bearing food that the invalid cannot eat. Bibi “was one of those women who always had to move things around in other people's kitchens. She couldn't believe that anyone might be anything other than delighted by her re-arrangements.” Bridie May, the orphan girl who comes to nurse Constance when she grows too weak to leave her bed, sleeps with the lights on to avoid meeting the very ghosts Constance so welcomes. One of the novel's most powerful effects comes from Johnston's decision to let 16-year-old Bridie complete the narrative her employer has begun as it reaches its stately, moving end.

The plot of The Christmas Tree, thus recounted, might seem gloomy indeed. But the exquisite filigree-work of Johnston's descriptive language precludes the possibility of gloom. Under Ireland's “opal sky,” Constance dies untranscendent, but in triumph. The starkness of this tale, and its narrator's blunt refusal to pit herself, give the novel its dazzling nobility. “I never had courage of any sort,” Constance writes, “that has been the absurdity of my life.” Her wry humor, in beautifully uncomfortable depictions of the stiff Keating family and an unforgettable adolescent ball (“Girls massed by the azaleas … bow ties slowly wilting like the flowers … Such fun. Such such boomy fun”) buoy up a story that refuses to become either smarmy or grave. Johnston has designed, after Marianne Moore, “a place for the genuine,” an imaginary garden with real toads in it.

Deborah Singmaster (review date 22 February 1991)

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SOURCE: “Blending the Old and New Irish,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4586, February 22, 1991, p. 19.

[In the following review, Singmaster offers a mixed assessment of The Invisible Worm, noting that the novel does not live up to its full potential.]

Jennifer Johnston's latest novel, The Invisible Worm, though set in Ireland like all her novels, appears at first to be an apolitical tale of a beautiful, neurotic middle-aged woman. Laura Quinlan, married to the endearingly feckless Maurice, is the product of an uneasy alliance between an eccentric Anglo-Irish mother and a much-respected politician, a member of Ireland's New Nobility whose funeral takes place in the opening pages. In contrast to most of Johnston's earlier novels, Ireland's Troubles, whether past or present, play no part in the plot. Yet there are indications that this tale of private agony is, on another level, a metaphor for the uncertain fate of Ireland's scholarly traditions and Anglo-Irish cultural heritage in the wake of her violent recent history. Laura, childless and the last in a line of well-heeled woman mill-owners, embodies a dying breed: county and Protestant, she possesses “that mythological edge … over everyone else. The glamour of being an endangered species.”

The setting is familiar: a rambling house cluttered with inherited bric-à-brac (a glass cabinet containing medals and miniatures, precious porcelain, the silver-backed hairbrush), rhododendrons running wild in the garden, a nearby beach. Much given to staring out of windows, Laura wrestles with the burden of the past: “I believe in continuity, the handing down of secrets; I want someone else to hear the whispers, the breaths from the past, as I have always done. … I am the curator of my ancestor's folly.” More specifically, she is haunted by events in her own past from which she has been fleeing since adolescence.

The flashbacks—to a house by the sea, a passionate yachtswoman (Laura's mother), an abandoned summerhouse and a final conflagration—make the echoes of Manderley hard to ignore. Like Rebecca, this novel is a thriller, with incest in place of infidelity and manslaughter. This is handled with boldness and compassion.

Maurice is a charming bounder who dotes on his wife (he addresses her as “dote”), tends her when she is ill, and deserts her without a qualm the, moment she is back on her feet. Intelligent, successful and fun-loving, Maurice represents the new Irish. He is not a man given to indulging in flights of fancy; he considers the past a waste of time; he admires women like Sandra Mooney, his latest conquest, “A whizzer. Nice, though, and going places.” Compared with other marriages in Johnston's novels, the Quinlans' is idyllic.

A less satisfactory character is Dominic, a spoiled priest and a Classics teacher (saint and scholar), who strikes-up an unlikely relationship with Laura, half-romantic, half-companionable. Each recognizes that the other is “peculiar” and there are parallels in their histories. If Laura is barren, Dominic is a homeless wanderer—a dismal creature in Maurice's estimation. Both are misfits in tough, go-getting modern Ireland.

The mannered style of The Invisible Worm mirrors the disintegration of Laura's world. Her memory works like a kaleidoscope, “repatterning, retricking the past.” When she feels strong she makes lists. “Cuff links: gold, silver, some with woven initials, some with polished stones.” When she becomes ill, her grasp on reality falters, things start to fall apart: the past overlaps the present: first voice shifts to third voice; snatches of songs, the liturgy, passages from the book she is reading (Love in the Time of Cholera) interweave with the action, and narrative and dialogue are broken up, sometimes to dotty effect.

The most substantial character in the novel should be Laura's dead father, the senator, a vain man, a peacock, flamboyant, energetic, powerful. Despite the accumulation of adjectives, and the sharply focused glimpses of him closeted with colleagues, picking Laura up from a party, bringing acquaintances back to the house for tea, he remains a vague figure. It is the penalty paid for the author's pointillist method; a rougher brush was needed to capture this big man. Perhaps this is also the explanation for a lurking dissatisfaction with The Invisible Worm as a whole: its teasing slightness. Whether read as thriller, psychological case-study, or nationalist metaphor it remains a tightly scrolled bud which fails to mature into a fully blown rose.

John Sutherland (review date 21 March 1991)

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SOURCE: “Resentment,” in London Review of Books, March 21, 1991, p. 22.

[In the following excerpt, Sutherland offers a positive assessment of The Invisible Worm.]

Jennifer Johnston is a full-time professional who has won, or come close to winning, her profession's highest prizes (though not the mass readership that sometimes goes with them). The Invisible Worm is a skilled exercise in narrative economy. It must be the kind of novel you can write only if you've spent years writing novels. Johnston uses words as if she were buying them with her life's savings from a jeweller's. A woman looks out into her garden on the coast of Ireland. She sees another woman running away. It is herself. She is schizophrenic (‘mad’ as her unkind, ‘peculiar’ as her kind neighbours say). The daughter of a senior politician who has just died, Laura is the wife of an EEC official who ‘took’ her for the dowry of her father's patronage. He is Catholic, she is Protestant. Her husband's attentions smother and reduce her, as did her father's, to doll-like impotence. She hates the closeness of men—aftershave, tobacco and hot licking tongues on her cheek. Laura lives ‘in two tenses.’ Her mind flits uncontrollably between the present and twenty years ago when something awful happened to her in the summerhouse (it's not giving away more than the title does to reveal that the something was grossly sexual). With the help of a ‘spoiled priest'—another of life's casualties—Laura frees herself from the past and achieves a kind of cure. She and the running woman are one. The novel ends with her looking out of the same window, seeing not the past but ‘my future—an empty page on which I will begin to write my life.’ She has discovered a third tense. Whether she will leave the ‘mad museum’ of her marital home is left open.

The Invisible Worm offers a description of child abuse so affecting and at the same time so tactful that one is tempted to claim that the novel as a genre must be peculiarly privileged in exploring the full awfulness of the crime. But what impresses one most is how effectively—how professionally—Johnston makes words work for her. The narrative is composed of broken sentences, half-repressed memories, tight-lipped dialogue, thought which scarcely dares form itself into language. On the page, with its profusion of white space and ellipsis, The Invisible Worm looks like shorthand notes for a novel. And there are not many pages. These dabs and scraps create a resonantly complete design in the reader's mind. The narrative pivots on such fine points that by changing about five hundred words (incidental references to the European Community, cars, the radio, and so on), you could convert The Invisible Worm into a New Woman novel of the 1890s. It was not until page 30 that I picked up an unequivocal historical marker—plastic detritus on the beach. The book has a handsomely understated jacket by Craig Dodd whose Edwardian design enhances the historical ambiguity, as does the Blakean title. …

Keith Jeffery (review date 1 October 1993)

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SOURCE: “Irishmen at the Front,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4722, October 1, 1993, p. 18.

[In the following review, Jeffery compares the stage adaptation of How Many Miles to Babylon? to the original novel.]

Twenty years after its publication as a short and elegantly crafted novel, Jennifer Johnston has herself adapted How Many Miles to Babylon? for the stage. The story concerns the relationship of two Irish boys, Alexander Moore, the son of an Ascendancy Big House, and Jerry Crowe, a peasant stable lad, as it develops and as they both enlist in the British army at the beginning of the First World War. The contrasts between the two: rich and poor; Protestant and Catholic; officer and private soldier, together with the growing depth of their friendship, provide the author with ample opportunities to reflect on the differing and often conflicting demands of private and public loyalties.

The rise of Irish nationalism, which was increasingly straining the fabric of the United Kingdom, adds further layers of tension, expressed through the political standpoints of the four main male characters: Moore, although Anglo-Irish, a Home Ruler; Crowe, a republican; Sergeant Barry, a rabid and sectarian Ulster Unionist; and Major Glendenning, an Englishman, quite unsympathetic to the “bog Irish” under his command. Barry and the major share a belief that the Irish are congenitally unreliable (“the Irish disease” is disaffection, maintains Glendenning), a view no doubt confirmed by the fact that both Moore and Crowe are disloyal, at least to conventional British military notions of honour. Moore's chief loyalties are to himself and to Crowe, a fact which at the end drives him to destroy his friend rather than see the army do so. Crowe's disloyalty is less subtle; he is an avowed republican who has simply joined up, he says, to learn to shoot a gun, which will be employed in the cause of Irish freedom. He is potentially the most interesting of the characters, and would perhaps have borne a fuller examination. In the midst of a conflict which Jennifer Johnston conventionally enough portrays as futile, Crowe remains enamoured of violence as a practical weapon. Neither play nor novel explore the irony that his violence is accepted (both by his friends and his enemies) much more readily than that of the war itself.

Two other characters complete the cast: Bennett, an English subaltern who provides some drollery, and Moore's manipulative mother, who pushes the boy to enlist for shabby private motives. Her presence is splendidly handled in Liz Cullinane's otherwise rather monochrome design. At the start of the play, when Moore is recalling the days of peace back home, his mother appears literally as a vision, an Angel of Mons, as it were, floating above the drab battle line. Later she moves about with a lit candle, like some latter-day Florence Nightingale, though she brings neither illumination nor comfort to anyone save possibly herself.

There is not a lot of action—the book, after all, was more contemplative than anything else. But in the absence, too, of any strong narrative thrust, the play threatens at times to become merely a series of rather static meditations, especially in the first half. We know that the principle characters are doomed—that seems to be a given for any Great War drama—but the ramifications of the crucial relationship between Moore and Crowe are not sufficiently integrated into the fate that overwhelms the two men to make the play a real tragedy, poignant and moving though it is.

How does the play differ from the book? Nearly half the novel deals with the period before the two boys reach France, but on stage this is treated with a few flashbacks and reminiscences. Moore's father does not appear in the play at all, and his physical absence simplifies the very equivocal relationship between Moore and his domineering mother, a woman “always either abstracted, or else wanting more than you can give.” The language of the play is rather rougher than the book—perhaps the passage of twenty years has permitted “fucking” to replace “bloody” (as in “Fenian bastards”), though this change may prevent the play following the novel on to as many school book lists. The casting of Sergeant Barry explicitly as an “Ulster prod” brings a much sharper edge to the relationship between the Irishmen, as Irishmen, at the front than is immediately apparent in the novel. The play, however, is very loyal to the text of the novel, and happily retains Jennifer Johnston's spare and expressive language. While the adaptation certainly demonstrates the difficulty of writing a play about a man thinking, the thoughts themselves, of Moore as he endures his “ignominious attendance on death,” remain beautifully constructed.

Patricia Craig (review date 22 September 1995)

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SOURCE: “Hollow Men,” in New Statesman and Society, September 22, 1995, p. 32.

[In the following review, Craig commends Johnston's skill at portraying complicated and intricate relationships in The Illusionist.]

The Illusionist is a kind of fable. Jennifer Johnston has been narrowing her focus lately, and this short novel is both highly concentrated and decorative. It doesn't have much in the way of plot, but plot is not the point as it moves between the present and the past.

It opens in Dublin, where a middle-aged novelist, Stella Macnamara, awaits the arrival from the airport of her daughter Robin. Robin is coming from the funeral of her father, Stella's estranged husband and the illusionist of the title. Martyn Glover has died in the company of 250 doves, caught by a terrorist explosion in a London street. Terrorism plays no further part in the story. Its function is to furnish the illusionist with a suitable end; gone, as he came, in a puff of smoke.

Train smoke must have heralded his first appearance on the Liverpool-London express, c1961. After materialising in the compartment in which Stella is travelling, he first interrupts her reading and then takes over her life. Reader, she marries him—and from this point on, it's a matter of the narrative allying itself with all those wives who are kept in the dark about their husbands' pursuits—occupational, amorous. Bluebeard springs to mind quite early on—“He had this room at the back of the flat … He kept the door of that room locked … ‘I have to have my own privacy you know.’” Martyn supplies no information about his background or source of income; Stella, we know, works in publishing—until Martyn puts a stop to that—and has a mother and father at home in Ireland. But Martyn is self-created, for all anyone can tell, and creator in his spare time of dazzling effects: roses sprouting from wrists, doves out of flames. One of his defects is to display scant sympathy over irrational fears; in Stella's case—unfortunately—a fear of birds. Birds are crucial to his illusionism. (He repudiates the term “conjuror.”)

It's the business of the novelist, no less than the magician, to kit herself out with a bag of tricks—to improve on reality, to create illusions. This analogy is stressed throughout. When Stella becomes a writer, against the odds, this triumph is referred to as “pulling something out of her hat.” (Martyn is adept at keeping things under his.) Running alongside this idea is a feminist point about women's resilience, which manifests itself here as a kind of muted mockery, as one illusion after another goes to the wall.

Minor issues get a showing—betrayal of one kind or another, friction between mothers and daughters—but the novel's central theme concerns illusions produced by men in the interests of power. Johnston, though, is far too skilful a novelist (or illusionist) to overstate the point, and her narrative is by turns inspiriting, illuminating and attractively strange.

C. L. Dallat (review date 26 September 1997)

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SOURCE: “Booking in to Dublin,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4930, September 26, 1997, p. 23.

[In the following review, Dallat argues that although the stories in Finbar's Hotel (written by Johnston and six other Irish authors) share common settings and characters, each piece is unique and strong enough to stand on its own.]

The characters who occupy seven rooms on the first floor of a down-at-heel Dublin hotel manage, simply by keeping out of each other's lives despite frequent and silent corridor confrontations, to create a vivid picture of a multi-layered, complex modern city, whose inhabitants and passers-through are as prone to loneliness as those in any other national capital. As a concept, this flies in the face of received notions of Dublin, from Joyce through Behan, Cronin and Donleavy to Dermot Bolger himself, the instigator and one of the joint authors of Finbar's Hotel; notions which imply a gregarious interconnectedness, and insist on seeing Dublin as a macrocosm of the parish; and it also undermines, oddly, the sense of Irish writers as a gathered community which is implicit in the invention and structure of this intriguing book.

Thus, while Finbar's Hotel presents itself as a literary puzzle—with its seven authors (the others are Hugo Hamilton, Jennifer Johnston, Joseph O'Connor and Colm Tóibín) asserting, contrary to custom, their right not to be identified in relation to the individual stories—the book's real interest is in the extent to which its collaborative nature both questions and, in the end, affirms the Romantic notion of the solitary artist, in spite of its interweaving of plots and retelling of incidents from opposing perspectives. And, although the structure—events played out in a single night in Dublin, retold in a variety of literary styles—obviously pays homage to Joyce as the progenitor of Irish city-writing, the work itself resists the narrative coherence of the novel generally; it must be seen rather as a themed collection of short stories.

The hotel itself represents the modern jerry-built city and its small-time transients as surely as its burnt-down predecessor, the original Finbar's Hotel, stands in the recollections of the employees and guests as a symbol of a vanished world of powerful party bosses, back-room clientelism, police compliance and clandestine off-duty clerical activities. Rumour has it that the fire in the old hotel was allowed to complete its work unhindered, for insurance purposes. The central story, in which the hotel's history is divulged, is rich with the obsessions which permeate Bolger's work, bibliophilia, frustrated sibling pre-sexuality, political corruption, long absences in England and mental illness. On the other hand, a returned drug-pusher hints at Joseph O'Connor's familiarity with the London-Irish demi-monde, while the easy intimacy with the great and the good reflects a Colm Tóibín view of Ireland; John Farrell, the night-manager, has, we are told, spent childhood Sundays on the carrier of the bicycle of the hotel's founder, Finbar FitzSimon, travelling to the President's residence in Phoenix Park where Finbar would converse in Irish, in the kitchen, with de Valera himself.

The author of the central section, whether Bolger himself or not, seems to be most intrigued by the literary parlour-game aspect of the enterprise, in a story peppered with allusions to the seven authors. Passing reference is made by the fictional characters in this piece to the autobiography of the father of one of the writers, to a pop-video featuring the sister of another, to a photograph taken by the hero of another writer's novel and to a court case heard by a fictional judge from yet another. This game-playing is for the aficionado; few readers will catch all the allusions, and, beyond a general awareness of, say, Charles Haughey and de Valera, it is not necessary to know whether Eamon Redmond is a real member of the judiciary and Brian Lenihan a character from a Tóibín novel (or vice versa) in order to savour the dynastic sweep and emotional impact of the confrontation between the comfortable, prosaic ambitions of the employee who has made his way up and the personal and economic failure of the children of the hotel's former proprietor. As the central contribution, Room 104 in a corridor from 101 to 107, “The Night Manager” not only makes sense of some of the earlier hints and implications but points forward to characters who have booked into the later rooms.

The less emotionally complicated and less embroidered opening story, “Benny Does Dublin,” has Ben Winters, a husband from Roddy Doyle's disenfranchised North Dublin, buy himself a secret night out, “on the town,” in bars and restaurants which make him feel out of place and in the basement night-club where he merely feels old. His only social success is to invent an “authentic” Irish past with which to regale American visitors, a sharp comment on Ireland's place in the modern world. In “White Lies,” two sisters in the next room, the daughters of a Church of Ireland rector, meet at the behest of the one who has stayed in Ireland, and who hopes to remedy her sister's long-standing estrangement from their mother, a separation which has as its cause a secret, like that of so many families in Irish novels, whose revelation must be continually deferred. The two end their drunken and argumentative evening sharing the one salvageable good from their past and singing loud psalms into the night.

The rented room has long been a location for escape and examination of conscience in fiction—as has the trick of retelling the same events from another character's viewpoint. Guests here include a pony-tailed Londoner with convictions for drug-pushing, two Dutch journalists, a party of tanned and ageing Americans, a well-known criminal, a man who has kidnapped his partner's cat and a wife whose husband in Galway believes her absences are for cancer treatment. Her increasingly absurd lies (in “The Test”) to the American tour guide with whom she spends the night (she tells him that she is a nun) match his inventions and mask her own disappointment.

One returned exile reflects on her fireman father's failed attempts to extinguish the blaze in the original hotel and, recalling her unsatisfactory serial love-life in small-town America, telephones a boyfriend of thirty years back (“An Old Flame”). Her stay becomes briefly entangled with that of the cold and determined local villain who has—inspired, no doubt, by a John Banville novel and by the post-1960 influx of millionaires into Ireland—graduated to the status of art thief, but who now finds that his attempts to deal with the international market lead him into unknown territories. His conviction that any one of the other guests might be an undercover agent leads him to search their rooms. Baffled by the presence in the next room (that of the fireman's daughter) of the ledger of the Drimnagh Fire Station, he removes it, an action which causes the returned American to call for the police, one of whom notices a fake of a recently stolen Rembrandt on the master-criminal's bedroom wall. Although this does not lead to his discovery (the Gardal being as inefficient as they always are in fiction), it does thwart his plans to sell the real thing (Portrait of a Lady).

As significant as the hotel-guests are the ancillary characters, not just the night manager but the works outing in the bar, the “Michelles” in the night-club and the night porter, Simon, whose presence implies continuity with a long line of sagacious servants in Irish literature. In addition to the aliases and alibis most of the characters use as a precondition of their being in the hotel, the collection abounds with fakes: the Rembrandt reproduction, Ben Winter's false famine history, the “nun”'s story, a decoy suitcase; a clear warning against attributing any of the stories too confidently. Although the crisp, stark prose in which the “Doyle” character's story is conveyed is highly reminiscent of Doyle himself, and the two FitzGibbon sisters in the next room are clearly from traditional Jennifer Johnston stock, pastiche may be as much a part of the venture as the imaginative structure itself. The writing embraces the thriller, the picaresque romance, the “twist-in-the-tail” short story, the existentialist hero, the roman-à-clef, the Big House novel and the urban “dirty realism” of present-day Dublin writers. The themes, sisterly rivalry, hypocrisy, clerical abuse, domestic ennui, returning prodigals and their discomfiting effect on those who stayed, are all to be found in Joyce's Dubliners as long ago as 1914.

There is a temptation to see these pieces as reinvigorating the Irish seanachie tradition of oral recollection and embellishment, tales building one on the other around a contemporary “fireside” (literally in the case of the old hotel), but despite their amicable cross-references and the aura of gamesmanship, the lasting impression is one of isolated “garret” writers describing a fragmented world, where the shared communal values of 1950s and 60s Ireland (however fraudulent, corrupt and hypocritical those values proved to be) have been replaced by urban alienation and indifference. Seen in this light, Finbar's Hotel offers a lively and likeable vision of an unlovely modern world.

Aisling Foster (review date 18 September 1998)

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SOURCE: “Hamlet at the Abbey,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4981, September 18, 1998, p. 27.

[In the following review, Foster offers a negative assessment of Two Moons, criticizing the inaccuracies in Johnston's description of modern Ireland.]

A new work [Two Moons] by Jennifer Johnston is always an event. The literary generation to which she belongs has produced some of Ireland's most ground-breaking fiction. Unspoken rules and invisible lines laid down by history, religion or family ties have supplied plenty of material for those writers raised within the peculiar straitjacket of de Valera's newly independent nation. And their acute awareness of convention, whether to stay silent or speak out, is their only common theme.

Born in 1930 as a southern Irish Protestant, Johnston has written fiction which has caught much of that strangeness and inhibition. But whereas her contemporaries, such as John McGahern, Edna O'Brien and Brian Moore, set their characters against conventional wisdom, often widening their field to examine the effects of memory and tradition, Johnston has always seen things from a different angle. For her, the struggle for personal freedom is what counts. Battles are fought in country houses and suburban homes. And, as with William Trevor or Aidan Higgins, the focus is on the wounds which simple misunderstanding and a patriarchal order can inflict. With the huge changes going on around them, her characters often feel as remote from their own families as from their Catholic neighbours. Despite their own liberal values, they are sometimes dismayed at the emergence of a brash and classless society and at the unspoken distance which old political associations have left behind.

Johnston's earliest Big-House novels like The Captains and the Kings described the isolation of the Anglo-Irish psyche within the new revolutionary order. Later, her middle-class Protestant heroines often find the contradictions of history too much to bear. For them, raking over old ground does more harm than good. So when the liberated Helen of The Railway Station Man advises her English lover to stop looking back, she might as easily be instructing her fellow countrymen to: “Stop conjuring up nightmares. Leave the past alone. That will be your freedom.” Johnston's work has moved away more and more from analysis of her country to questions about self. As the country she describes has evolved from Free State through banana republic to Celtic tiger, her awkward, independent women seem to fight ever more fiercely with convention, abandoning husbands, throwing off children, rejecting the old story-book answers for female happiness.

In Two Moons, three generations of women sum up those different struggles for liberation. Indeed, each woman's attitude to marriage, career and love might be read as a measurement of how Ireland has changed in the author's life-time. Religion and politics are no longer relevant; appetite is paramount; and our heroine peels off her clothes for a naked midnight swim with as much ease as she opens another bottle of red wine or dresses a salad.

Grace is a middle-aged Abbey Theatre actress. She shares a house beside the sea near Dublin with her aged mother, Mimi. Her daughter, Polly, lives in London. Like most of the children in Johnston's fiction, she has a difficult relationship with her mother, and finds more in common with her divorced English father. When she comes to visit with a beautiful young actor called Paul, the relationship becomes even more fraught. Paul and Grace find they are sexually attracted. They struggle to keep their hands off one another while Grace rehearses a new production of Hamlet. Meanwhile, Mimi is being visited by her guardian angel, Bonifacio. In their long, uninhibited conversations together about life and art, Mimi uncovers the reason for her late husband's sexual coldness towards her. He was a closet homosexual, a condition which she realizes she might not have understood in the early years of her marriage and now finds quite unshocking. Her forgiveness of her husband's silence and her own youthful ignorance help prepare her for death.

Grace and Polly do not appear to share the grandmother's delight in the brave new world. Indeed, the questions about whether or not Grace and Paul might have an affair, or whether a mother should tell her daughter about her philandering fiancé are never really dealt with; Grace bats off the man with a lot of Shakespearean quotations, as she pours down even more red wine and throws herself into the sea once again. Polly whinges down the telephone, a pathetic creature with a primary interest in clothes and marriage. And Mimi, despite her recent insights about the importance of sharing, watches her daughter's suffering without saying a word about it. The effect is frustrating and ultimately unbelievable. If Grace is the strong, selfish creature Johnston has written, then her self-control is unlikely. And if her society has changed in the way she describes, then her high moral line would be judged ridiculous rather than fine. For independent women of her generation, sex is not such a big deal; the 1960s reached Ireland, too.

In choosing such a problem, and solving it with such improbably large helpings of denial, Johnston reveals more about the morals of her own generation than of theirs. She has somehow written a more old-fashioned Irish novel than she may have intended. Perhaps her unique and disciplined literary voice is less attuned to the “new” Ireland than to the disappearing country which she helped define.

Jennifer Johnston with Rosa González (interview date 1998)

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SOURCE: “Jennifer Johnston,” in Ireland in Writing: Interviews with Writers and Academics, edited by Jacqueline Hurtley, Rosa González, Ines Praga, and Esther Aliaga, Rodopi, 1998, pp. 7–19.

[In the following interview, Johnston discusses her creative process and the various critical responses to her work.]

[González:] Your novels are fairly short, almost novellas. Do you consciously aim at brevity?

[Johnston:] No, I don't. I always say to myself, “Now, this time I'm going to write a long novel,” and it always seems a long idea in my mind, you know, but they come out almost exactly the same length. That seems to be my rhythm, and I believe very strongly that when I've made my point I don't want to embellish it in any way, and I think with very long novels a lot is embellishment, and I don't have any desire to embellish.

At the same time your novels are very carefully structured (with the use of multiple points of view, of framing devices …). Do you plan much before you start writing?

No. I'm a very disorderly person and a very disorderly writer. When I start to work I have just say one or two ideas in my mind, and I just start sort of playing around with them, like you play with tennis balls against the wall, and after about forty pages, suddenly they take on a momentum of their own, the characters suddenly start to develop. I always know where I'm going before I start, but I don't know how I'm going to get there. And so I actually allow them to grow organically, and I do that the first draft, and I have this pile of paper which I don't really look back at. And then I go back, and I edit back, usually cutting out the embellishments, the things that I had actually thought were rather good writing, or a wonderful sort of scene between two people that had given me great pleasure to write. These are the things that usually come out strangely enough. I think it's quite strange, because I take a very long time to write my novels, and I can sit for days or weeks, and not really write anything at all, and I think this is the novel assembling itself subconsciously in my head, and then it comes out very slowly, but I am very seldom absolutely conscious until I get back to look at it a second time, and it has a pattern, has worked out. And then, as I say, I'm aware of it then, and then I do the shaping, to fit in with the shape that it has taken itself.

In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman (1986) you said that as a teenager you would have preferred to be a man. Is there a connection between the desire you expressed then and the fact that several of your early novels have male protagonists?

No, I don't think so. When I said that, and I think that I really meant it, I was very aware from the age of about fourteen on of the opportunities that were for men that there weren't for women, and that you had all the time to be sort of retuning your thoughts and ideas to fit into this role in the world that you were going to have to play. Things are quite different now, well, things are slightly better now. I think when I started to write, when I was teaching myself to write, I didn't have the courage in a way to approach writing as woman, and so I came at it obliquely through writing through the eyes of a man, and this was, I think, lack of courage. Because you can't jump in at the deep end of a swimming pool unless you can swim and I had to teach myself to swim before I really started to write about the things that I wanted to write about.

You have just mentioned that the position of women in Irish society has changed. How do you see this change?

I think on the surface it seems to have changed a lot, but I don't think it has changed really very substantially. I think another twenty-five years and it will have changed substantially. But it's a very slow process, unless you had a civil war, and you wouldn't ever have one about that particular subject.

But there are many more women participating in public life.

There are, yes, there are, but there aren't enough. And there are very few women writing in Ireland, which I think is very sad. There are a lot of painters, but there are very few women writing, and I've never been able to work out why it is so. Now, I've told you that I was judging this prize for a literary book published in Ireland, and I got eighteen books and one of them was by a young woman. Now, that's saying something, you know.

Your last novels feature middle-aged female protagonists. For all of them maturity and fulfilment entails isolation and the independence of living alone. Would you like to comment on this?

Yes, I suppose it is this sort of great notion that we have all been brought up on, which is that you have to keep compromising all through your life. And when you start to compromise you sometimes find that you just compromise yourself out of existence, and I just have the feeling that this is one of the reasons why I say that things are not right here as yet with women, because they tend to have to either compromise themselves out of existence or they have to take this other road which is that of isolation. And somehow, when the middle-ground area is reached, then women will be in a much healthier situation, but at the moment it tends to be very much one thing or the other, and the sort of happy medium has not been discovered yet.

Even though your novels deal with emotionally charged material, you avoid creating a melodramatic and sentimental tone. Do you find it difficult to adopt this detached and unemotional approach?

Yes, I do find that. I find it is absolutely essential to me. Sometimes I just go too far and I have to do a lot of rethinking and re-editing and things like that, because I find this sort of writing doesn't appeal to me in any way. I like that sort of cool eye and I would like to be able to retain that myself.

Although Aidan Higgins and J. G. Farrell had both published a novel with a Big House setting in the late 1960s, the publication within three years of your first three novels greatly contributed to the revival of the Big House novel. Were you conscious of re-instating a tradition?

Absolutely not, absolutely not, this makes me laugh. I mean, the fact that the novels were published in three years was a total accident of fate. It was the very fact that my first novel, which was The Gates, just was turned down by fourteen publishers and then, after The Captains and the Kings came out, my publisher, who hadn't been one of the people who had seen it in the first place, said, “Oh, we'll publish that too.” By which time I was writing Babylon, so this extraordinary thing happened and it looked like I was going to be the most prolific writer. In actual fact, as I said, it was a total accident, it was quite fortuitous. And really, as far as I'm concerned the Big House is just a means to an end in a way. I'm not really saying very much about that life, I'm trying to talk about the people and this just happens to be the setting in which those people have been placed. I mean, Aidan Higgins quite specifically is writing a Big House novel in its own curious way. I've always found this was a burden to me, that is, I've been given this role, which I'm desperately trying to get away from, you know. But I never can, because all these academics have written their critical works, and they are talking about me in universities, and this is the category they put me into, and I don't like this, I find it very limiting, and it annoys me.

But you have used the Big House as a setting in many novels.

Oh yes, but I wasn't actually trying to make statements of any sort about “the Big House.” As I have explained to you, well, tried to explain, how the thing creeps out of my head, the idea that I would have in the beginning would never be about that sort of thing, it would have to do very much more with something like violence, or a person will appear and I have to discover why this person wants to be written about. I never wanted to write about Big Houses as such, I just happen to write about the sort of people that I know best, without any conscious notions in my head.

I feel terribly strongly about the fact that we are all being put into little boxes. The people don't talk to each other, you see them living in a society like there is in a small town here, the people who live on this side of the river don't talk to people who live on the other side of the river, the people in big houses don't talk to people in little houses, and this goes on throughout everybody's lives, and children are taught in a way not to have anything to do with people who live over there, for some reason or other, which is totally spurious, and I've always felt that age doesn't matter, that sex doesn't matter, that religion doesn't matter, that you can have relationships with people from anywhere, and there is an honesty and a truth about those relationships. This is something that I prefer to explore rather than explore the reasons that keep those people apart.

An early reviewer of your first novels (Brian Donnelly, 1975) said that in The Captains and the Kings you were careful to weigh the scales of merits and faults between the representatives of the two nations. Were you aware of this?

I was aware to a certain degree that I had to do that, that otherwise there was very little point in writing that novel, and I was just aware as I was going along that I had to put both sides of the picture to a certain extent. It's quite an uneven novel, some bits are quite good, but for example the father of the boy is not a very good character, I mean, I wouldn't write him like that now, but yes, I was quite careful because you don't want to make a lot of people baddies and the other lot goodies, especially when you are writing about an old man like that who was really neither a baddie nor a goodie, you have to give everybody a reasonably good balance.

Critical analysis of your work has been fairly contradictory, that is, it has been said that your novels convey more about your country “than whole volumes of analysis and documentation” and at the same time your novelistic universe has been compared to Jane Austen's “little bit of ivory, two inches wide.” How do you react to these divergent views?

Well, I think that the first one is a bit grandiose. I would be very happy to be compared to Jane Austen, and I'm aware of the small patch of earth that I'm looking at and cultivating and turning over the stones of. I'm very aware of that, and I think that we all have to be aware of our own limitations, and I'm never going to write The Brothers Karamazov. I would rather try to do what I know I can do, and do it better and better than to launch myself into some vast world that I really couldn't cope with. I'm too old, to begin with. But I think that even if I had started writing when I was twenty-two or twenty-three I still would have been looking with a microscope at my own patch. I think I can call it my own patch, there are not many other people doing what I'm doing. I'm afraid I have a strange eye disease and I really see very little, so I can stare at things for a very long time, and as I stare at them they become very much clearer to me, and in a strange way that is what I feel I'm doing when I'm writing. And I'm really only doing it for myself. To have my books sold in the shops, and have people read them, is an enormous bonus. This sounds awful, but I really write to make my life worth living, and the other thing is something else, and it's wonderful. So, I would be on the side of Jane Austen, but basically, what you do when you write a book, you are having a dialogue with one other person who is the reader—whoever that may be—and they have their own input into that, which is why I think it is terriby important to write in an almost minimalist way, because then their imagination, or their sensibility, is working, and so every single person who reads your book comes away with a different point of view about it. I have never tried consciously—ha!, which is just as lucky—I have never tried to make important statements, I don't really want to do that.

And how do you react to criticism in general?

I really don't mind. I mean, the one time when I really did mind was when The Christmas Tree came out in the United States, and the man in The New York Times tore it into shreds in the most unkind, and extraordinarily personal fashion. He was a critic called Anatole Boyer. I remember reading this review—the post came when I was having my breakfast, the publishers had sent me the cutting—and I was absolutely devasted by it. It was as if this man was punching me about the face, and it had a catastrophic effect in the USA on my career there, which just stopped like that. It doesn't matter how good any other reviews have been since, my publisher refused to publish my next book, and just everything went “shhhh.” I hated that, I don't mind what anybody says at all, but I mean this was very personal, I had never met the man, I didn't know anything about the man—think somebody told me he's dead now. Maybe he had cancer, maybe his mother had just died of cancer, I don't know, but it was vituperative to a degree, it was very long and it was just so horrible. …, I didn't like that. But apart from that, you know, it's one of the things you just get used to, you just go on writing books, you just say, “you win some, you lose some.”

One of the things I like is the fact that young writers in Ireland seem to like my work, and this gives me a great feeling of satisfaction, and a great pleasure, because they are the future, and if young writers that I admire think I'm OK, that's fine. I mean, critics are like sort of being bitten by a mosquito, you scratch for a little while and then you forget about it, and there is really very little point in being annoyed.

Most of your work explores the damaging ways in which the past influences the present. Do you think that the burden of the past is a distinctly Irish feature?

No, I don't. I think we handle it in our own very particular way. But I think we are all burdened by the past, by our history, by our culture—and I never really know what culture means, you know, it can be the way people eat their bacon and eggs, as well as the novels they write or the paintings they paint. But yes, I think that for all sorts of historical reasons we handle the past very badly, and maybe in the next millenium, you know, we will have learned. …

Sorry, when you say “we,” do you mean the Irish?

Yes, I mean the Irish. I think other races can handle their own past in a more creative way than we do. I don't know, because this is the only race I really know. Well, I certainly know the English are not bothered by their past in the sense we are. In this country you can't spend a day without something or other happening that reminds you of the past.

The emphasis on the past and on the way in which the forces of the outer world impinge upon the private sphere and destroy it lends your work a very pessimistic tone. However, in The Christmas Tree (1981) and especially in The Invisible Worm (1991) there is an intimation of regeneration that was absent in your earlier work. Would you say that you are becoming more optimistic?

Actually I'm quite an optimistic person. It's just that I wrote pessimistic books. You see, it's the whole thing of living constantly with violence, living with terrible circumstances around you. It's the total helplessness of the human beings who are trying to relate to each other, or love each other, or just have some sort of warm and normal life, when history is happening all around you, either in the form of the First World War, or the concentration camps, or just the violence that we have had here. Because everything you do is sort of crushed, all your sensibilities are crushed in a way by continuous violence. My goodness, you have wonderful writers in Spain who have said all that.

But would you agree that in your more recent fiction there is a vision of the future that was absent before?

Oh yes, I think that is absolutely right.

In your novels there are a lot of intertextual references: literary allusions, nursery rhymes, songs, and so on. Do you plan them beforehand?

No, no, they just occur when the moment happens and suddenly something will come into my head. You see, I come from a literary family, my mother was an actress and we always read enormously. My childhood was filled with people singing songs, nursery rhymes, romantic ballads, or whatever they might be, not necessarily well but they were there, and every time we went on a car journey there were all the statutory songs that you sang as you drove. And so, it is very much part of my life, and I listen to a lot of music, and that is very much part of me, and I don't think I could write a novel, or a play, that didn't have those sorts of sounds coming into it. Because they change the pace of things, as far as I'm concerned, because when you suddenly come across a bit of a song or something, presumably the person who is reading it too, hears that being sung in their head, or that being played. Or maybe they don't, because maybe they don't know what I'm talking about. But whatever it does it's a sort of bonus, just a change of pace to keep things sort of going, you can write elegant prose for so long, but suddenly you want to do something, to shake it up a bit, I think that's one of the reasons, and also, as I said, I think it's very much part of myself.

And what about the titles? How do you decide them?

The titles, I find it quite difficult getting titles. Now, The Invisible Worm I knew immediately, and my current book The Illusionist I knew immediately, well like within about twenty pages of the start, I said, “this is going to be called The Illusionist.” And that is absolutely right. The Invisible Worm I thought was a great title too; my publisher tried to make me change it and I wouldn't. But up till then I always had a certain amount of difficulty trying to think of titles, because it's got to have some relevance to what is happening, and you can't make them too boring. Nobody likes to babble on, it always causes problems with people, they say, “Why?.”

Your titles are getting shorter, aren't they?

I think that's just an accident. It's totally accidental.

Are you satisfied with the adaptation of several of your novels for the screen?

No. I quite liked How Many Miles to Babylon? I thought that the woman who directed that, and Derrick Mann, between them, who adapted it, did a really good job on trying to get the sort of essence of the book there onto the screen. There were things I didn't like, but this had nothing to do with the adaptation. And Shadows on Our Skin was actually quite good, but some bits lay themselves open to being adapted and it worked quite well, you know, and the producer knew what he was doing, that was O.K. But I have been pretty unhappy about everything else; and I positively loathed some of the later ones. I've just written the screenplay of Fool's Sanctuary, which I hope is going to be made, and then I have no one to blame but myself, and if it's awful, it is my fault, but I much prefer it to be this way, than going round sort of griping about somebody else.

Have you considered the possibility of setting some of your work outside Ireland?

Well, The Illusionist is partly set in England, you know. It is about three generations of women: a grandmother, a mother and a daughter who is about thirty. The story is told with the voice of the mother—the one in the middle. The woman herself, as she tells the story, is living in Dublin, but she spent fifteen, twenty years in England, and the story is about that. But you have to be awfully careful, for example writing about the trenches, you have to use an awful lot of tricks so that you cover up your own ignorance about what you are writing about.

But you lived in England for a long time, didn't you?

I did, I did, I lived in London, but this woman lives out in the country, and I really have to keep the story inside, in tight close-ups you know, so that you are not really abandoned in some spurious English countryside that I am just inventing.

In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman you said that when you lived in England you felt an alien there. Why was this?

When we went to England, it was really like just going down the road on the train. Now, we were very lucky because we had a little bit of money, my husband had a good job, we lived in a very nice house, we had lots of friends. When I left Trinity, I suppose most of, practically all our friends and contemporaries left Ireland and went to live abroad, and many of them went to London. As I say, London was almost a suburb of Dublin and we were able to come back, we came back with kids on all their holidays. I only started to feel like an alien when the Troubles started here, and then I was suddenly aware of a huge difference in perception between the English and the Irish. And it became very obvious to me that I was an alien, but it really didn't happen to me very much before then, not all that much. I'm always contradicting myself. …

You've mentioned Trinity. Do you have good memories of the time you spent there?

I had a great time in Trinity. I seriously failed most of my exams, you know. A couple of years ago they gave me an Honorary Doctorate, and at some stage somebody was looking up my record and said to my son, “we can't find anything about your mother here,” and he burst out laughing and said, “my mother failed to get a degree, you've expunged all memories of her.” But I enjoyed my time, it was lovely, it was growing up. I went into Trinity when I was seventeen, straight out of school, and it was a very interesting time, because it was just after the war. It was 1947. And half the people there—the university was very small then, there were two thousand five hundred people. And there were all these rules, like you couldn't go into men's rooms, and things like that. Half the undergraduates were straight out of school, aged seventeen or eighteen, and the other half were young men who had fought in the war, and they were very glamorous, very very glamorous—don't think Trinity has ever been as glamorous since. You know, they were such heroes in a way, to someone who is seventeen. God love them, they were only in their early twenties, but they seemed like real men, not like the little boys whom you'd known from down the road, who were almost only into their long trousers. Oh, yes, that was fun, it was great fun, and I met a lot of very good friends.

Were there many women?

There were, but not that many. I mean, there were enough not to be peculiar. There were a lot of English girls, because again the English universities were flooded with ex-service people, and if you couldn't get into Oxford or Cambridge, you wanted Trinity College in Dublin, it was the next one on the list, if you didn't want to go into any of those awful redbrick places. So, it was quite interesting, because they were slightly different, and they were there and they were glamorous, you know, they had probably more money than we had, and wonderful clothes, and they made us all think, “Ooh!.”

How do you see the present political situation in Ireland? Are you hopeful about the future?

Well, I feel very optimistic about it. I think one of the things that has to be done, and I think is in the process of happening here in the north, is that there is a new growth of youngish Unionists who are hardheaded, pragmatic, have been terrorists and who are now saying, “We want to hear what they have to offer us, we want to go down this road.” Now, the old breed of Unionists are all still sitting down and saying “no.” These tough guys are very bright, they speak real good common sense when you hear them on the radio. And I just feel that these are the men who are going to move us into the future. Now I am Irish. I am not Northern Irish, I am not Southern Irish, I am Irish. I also am Protestant. That does not mean anything, that is only a label. Actually I'm nothing at all if the truth be known. I was put in that box, simply because I'm not a Catholic they put me into the Protestant box.

I have never believed in the existence of the Border except as a tiresome, visitor thing that you have to cross when you want to move from Dublin to Belfast, or Dublin to Derry. I think that even if, in 1922, Ireland had been united then, there would still be problems going on here, because it's only now that they are starting to understand, and this is because of the fact that everyone is much better educated than they were, the fact that people are more liberal than they were, there's an awful lot of ridiculous myths that all churches tell. People are not listened to any longer, and there is not so much of the authoritarian people who have more money than other people. People don't listen to them any longer. Yes, we are just starting to treat each other with a bit of dignity, and circumspection. And I think we will go on and I'm absolutely certain that whatever happens, it won't be a unitary state, like in twenty-five years, I don't know how long it will be, but I think that Ireland will be united in a different sort of a way, a way that is not going to create more violence. I'm absolutely certain, because I think that people have learned so much from the horrors of the last twenty-five years. And a lot of the people who are important, don't appear to be important at this moment. Those people have learned to understand that hating people for no reason, except they have a label round their neck that's not what you have round yours, is a waste of time. And it's quite strange. I also think that the people in the South are fairly complacent about the whole thing, because they have been sitting there saying, “We are not behaving like that, ha ha ha.” I think there is a great moment when there will be huge movement here, it's bound to be. The problem in the North is solved, or more or less solved, and the North as a sort of unit can look at the South and say, “O.K. come on, now we can talk to you, and you can talk to us, and we are not going to despise each other, because there is huge strength.” And the people in the North are so like each other, it is quite extraordinary: they all say exactly the same thing; they are just looking through two different telescopes. And their attitudes to each other, they are like mirror images of each other, and they are not really terribly like the people in the South. I don't know whether northern Spaniards are much like southern Spaniards; the northern French people are not remotely like southern French people, and it's the same thing here.

It'll be such a wonderful moment when they recognize each other as brothers rather than as enemies. But I think it's going to happen. I may not see it, that's irrelevant, but the great thing is that I'm absolutely certain it's going to happen because we are a great race and we are starting to learn things about ourselves that we should have been learning for the last twenty-five years.

Frank Egerton (review date 21 October 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584

SOURCE: “Rebelling against Jam and Duty,” in Spectator, No. 2985, October 21, 2000, pp. 48–49.

[In the following review, Egerton offers a positive assessment of The Gingerbread Woman.]

Like its beautifully written predecessor, Two Moons, Jennifer Johnston's latest novel [The Gingerbread Woman] is set in the village of Dalkey, just south of Dublin. There are shared themes too. Adult children wrestle with identity under the shadow of their parents, that of their mothers especially. Tragic events are repressed with varying degrees of success. Mental breakdown is an imminent, if at times surprisingly comic, threat. But the world she creates here is all its own: powerfully drawn characters extend the familiar in new ways, leading to an exploration of contemporary values, in both the South and the North of Ireland.

Clara is a lecturer in modern Irish literature who has discovered that the world is ‘full of universities’ delighted to offer her short-term contracts, which perfectly accords with her intermittent wanderlust. Once home she is at first happy when her mother indulges the ‘childishness’ in her but is inexorably compelled to react against ‘jam’ and ‘familial duties’ and make a run for it. But on this occasion, having recently returned from New York, it is clear that her state of mind results from more disturbing traumas. She talks in bitter but guarded terms about a failed relationship with a Manhattan stockbroker and of subsequent gynaecological ‘butchery.’

On Killiney Hill she meets Lar, a maths teacher from the Glens of Antrim who is initially drawn to her by the mistaken notion that she is about to commit suicide—something he has ‘never yet had the guts to do.’ Over the next few days they enter into an intense but difficult friendship. Gradually the horrific details emerge of how his wife and daughter were killed and why he has run away from his parents and his community.

Out of the experiences of these two characters very different patterns, psychological and sociological, begin to appear. Whereas Lar is terrified of forgetting his wife if he stops ‘picking the scab off the wound,’ Clara welcomes the growth of scar tissue. He comes from a closed rural society where he is supposed to remain silent and ‘keep on believing in the goodness of God.’ Her freer, relatively secular background enables her to express her suffering through writing a novel.

For all the hurt, Johnston avoids making things overly bleak. Clara is irascible and introspective, certainly, but these traits are mixed with a charming, mercurial side which gives rise to playfully humorous dealings with Lar and her mother. Lar himself finds a way out of his predicament through Clara, though romantically she is not his ‘cup of tea.’ There is just enough trust between them for her to carry on the process of liberating him from the old ways that was begun by his wife.

The resulting hopefulness is thought-provoking. While both characters react against a culture of stubborn self-reliance they seem destined to embody it, albeit in a modified form. The novel is refreshingly not about blaming parents but about individuals learning to be their ‘own person.’ The differences between North and South are real, but the book gives the underlying impression that a common heritage is being rediscovered.

As in all her best novels, Johnston's vividly immediate effects belie the simple elements from which they are created. And although the book is firmly rooted in character, place and time, its reach extends well beyond the particular into the universal territory of classic storytelling.

C. L. Dallat (review date 10 November 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 700

SOURCE: “On Killiney Hill,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 5093, November 10, 2000, p. 25.

[In the following negative review, Dallat criticizes the inaccurate details, unbelievable elements, and broad characterizations in The Gingerbread Woman.]

Jennifer Johnston's novels, and contemporary Irish writing generally, are replete with relationships which are dogged by differences of religion and culture. The Gingerbread Woman reverses expectations only in that it focuses on an encounter between a Southern Protestant and a Northern Catholic. The meeting, in the opening pages, between a young Glens of Antrim man, walking his dog on Killiney Hill, and a woman he believes is about to commit suicide, creates an awkward set of obligations and—avowedly non-sexual—affections, nimbly charted by Johnston over the next few days of their shared lives towards a resolution that is surprisingly credible.

Clara Barry and Laurence McGrane are opposites in every respect. The former's middle-class upbringing has given her access to international academia; she lectures on literature while singing Schubert and Verdi to herself, listening to Billie Holiday in the bath, collecting objets d'art, watching art-house movies and quoting whole Roger McGough poems to justify her mistrust of Freud. Open to the possibility of the occasional romance, she is currently recuperating from the medical consequences of an affair with a cynical womanizer which she is keen to forget. Lar McGrane is recently widowed, his wife, Caitlin, and child, Moya—as he gradually reveals to everyone but Clara—killed by an IRA bomb, a device familiar to Johnston's readers. Unlike Clara he refuses to forget.

While McGrane nurtures memory and hate by continually “talking to” the murdered Caitlin, Clara attempts to deal with her recent unpleasantness through novel-writing. This allows Johnston to interweave three narratives: Clara's first-person retelling, a third-person account of McGrane's story and Clara's breathless notes-for-a-novel chronology of her seduction by her Upper East-Side deceiver. The “novel” sections are interspersed with occasional interruptions from Clara's Apple Mac. (The device of having the “I” of the first-person narrative drop sporadically into lower case, due, apparently, to Clara's confused, post-operative state, fails; this would have been self-corrected by any up-to-date word-processor.)

However, Johnston is at her storytelling best in the Manhattan sequences and in her evocation of Clara's bourgeois Dublin world—mother obsessed with jam- and gingerbread-making and the friendly, fifty-something, family doctor waiting to make his move—a milieu equally distant from the author's earlier Ascendancy mansions and from William Trevor's poorer rural Protestants. As in many of Johnston's novels, however, skilled observation of behavioural nuance substitutes to a large extent for depth of character and complexity of plot.

While the basic premiss of the story runs counter to received notions, Johnston's fondness for stock characterization has not diminished. Following the dislike of Northerners apparent in the works of Yeats, Joyce, Bowen and O'Faolain, she portrays McGrane as backward-looking, dour, humourless and uncultured, someone who has rarely ventured out of Antrim and—with a suggestion of sexual repression—someone who has remained faithful to his first love, Caitlin. Clara, with all her advantages, is offensively dismissive of the troubled North and, despite her vocation as an Irish literary critic, has no interest in history or religion; together with her fondness for European culture and her mother's conserving activities, these are clichés of Southern middle-class Protestant life. And while the novel's grasp of the awkwardnesses of human contacts is never in doubt, too many details, such as the unconvincing age range of the characters, Caitlin's monologues and Clara's use of the phrase “dumb down,” do not ring true. Laurence McGrane would not be “Lar” in North Antrim; short forms such as Lar, Ger, Gar and Der, long popular in the South, have not yet taken on in towns “near Ballycastle.”

While fiction ought not, perhaps, to be judged on the finer details, novels which rely heavily on the relationship between character and locality have heightened obligations to accuracy. Equally unfortunate is the choice of “lecturer in Modern Irish Literature” as profession for a character who cannot spell the names of two of Ireland's leading twentieth-century writers. In other respects, however, The Gingerbread Woman is an engaging and accessible novel and those familiar with Jennifer Johnston's later writing will not be disappointed.


Johnston, Jennifer (Vol. 7)