A writer making sense of life's 'awful muddle'
“My family used to tell each other terrible lies – but we all used to hug each other and kiss each other and love each other,” Johnston says. “Even if you’d had a terrible row with some relation, you always made it up again. I only had one parent, really, because my father disappeared when I was seven. I mean, he used to come back and visit us – but it’s not the same thing.”
As far as the young Jennifer was concerned, these disappearances were caused by the second World War rather than by the family cataclysm that is divorce.
“I thought the fact that he didn’t spend the night was something to do with the fact that he was going back to the desert. And it was great to see him. But then he never came back at all. When I was about 14, I was told that he was gone. I think, you know, everybody just thought, ‘Children are only children – they don’t understand anything. And therefore we mustn’t let them know these awful things that happen.’”
Over and over again Johnston has explored the crippling lies, omissions and silences of families in a way that makes them uncommonly accessible. The Irish Book award will, hopefully, bring her to the attention of a new generation of readers. Meanwhile she herself keeps up with new generations of writers.
“I love Colum McCann. And this young woman I think is terribly good.” She points to a book by Claire Keegan on her well-stocked bookshelves, then bends down to rummage in a box under her desk. She emerges waving a copy of Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints. “I have now discovered this,” she says. “It’s very funny.” And Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart is, she says, “the best first novel I’ve read for years and years and years”.
What of her own new novel? “The various people who’ve read it all say I’ve got my times muddled up.” Her daughter Sarah, who heads the Russian department at Trinity College Dublin, says not to worry.
“She said, ‘Think of Anna Karenina. It’s a well-known fact. Tolstoy got all his times and dates completely screwed up. People have written books about this, Mother,’ she said.”
Johnston erupts into another great chime of laughter. “There you are. I just have to think about Anna Karenina. Which is not one of my favourite books anyway – whether his times are right or they’re wrong.”
She must have favourites, then? “Well, I love John McGahern. How could you not? I love Ian McEwan. I love Jane Austen. I love EM Forster. I mean, anybody who can admit that we live in a complete and total muddle. Because so many people say, ‘Well, it’s not a muddle. It’s quite organised and orderly.’ That’s not true. It is just one bloody awful muddle from the moment you’re born until the moment you die. And you might as well just try and muddle through.”
The Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards will be presented in Dublin on Thursday