Jennifer Johnston: chronicler of Ireland’s hidden civil wars

Johnston is one of Ireland’s greatest living writers, says fellow author Dermot Bolger, focusing on our troubled history, family and coming of age

Jennifer Johnston: her novels   have come to embody brevity and resigned, earned, razor-sharp wisdom. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Jennifer Johnston: her novels have come to embody brevity and resigned, earned, razor-sharp wisdom. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

As with Samuel Beckett, the novels of Jennifer Johnston grow shorter and wiser as she grows older, so that they have come to embody brevity and resigned, earned, razor-sharp wisdom. It is great to see her most recent novel, Naming the Stars, received the attention it deserves, as it was initially only released in e-book format, due to its length, before now being handsomely published – in companionship with an older novel, Two Moons.

If it seems slight in length, then – like every novel by Johnston, since The Captains and the Kings, 45 years ago – this is a deceptive impression quickly shed after being immersed in her precise and understated prose for even a few pages, because there is nothing slight about her works, which carefully and shrewdly dissect the human heart.

Naming the Stars tells the hidden story of Flora, who lost her father and brother in the second World War and who now, in old age and well-fortified by wine from the cellar of her crumbling childhood home, reminisces with her sole companion – Nellie, the family’s life-long housekeeper – about the joys and dark secrets of her childhood. The tone is conversational throughout, mild and unthreatening in capturing the tiny private world these two old women live within, but that quiet tone begins to subtly home in on sharply observed insights into childhood hurt, betrayal and discreetly hidden familial cruelties.

Johnston is one of Ireland’s greatest living writers. She simply appears every three years with another small, intensely crafted volume to be treasured by lovers of good writing

It is a wonderful, evocative and at times chilling novel; only 91 pages long, but carrying the punch and depth of any novel three times its length. It presents a powerfully self-contained world as it fluidly, cannily and disturbingly flits between past and present with an absolutely unselfconscious ease.

Johnston is one of Ireland’s greatest living writers. Her uncanny ear for the subtleties and hidden meanings behind seemingly innocuous dialogue may be in her genes as her mother was a famous Abbey actor and her father a noted and now neglected playwright. Since that superb debut with The Captains and The Kings in 1972 at the relatively late age of 42, Johnston has since made up for lost time by producing a distinctive oeuvre of sparse and tightly controlled novels. In this age of hype and celebrity her books have not always received the attention they deserve, simply because – like the late Brian Moore who quietly went about refining his craft – reliable novelists are not newsworthy. Johnston simply appears in the shops every three years with another small, intensely crafted volume to be treasured by lovers of good writing.

Those novels sometimes deal with political and cultural tensions within Ireland but more often focus on the more hidden civil war of family relationships and the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood.

She is a master at subtly coming at subjects from different prospective – like, for example, in Foolish Mortals, where an ex-wife finds herself summoned to the hospital bedside of the man who left her for another woman, just as she is coming to terms with the pain of being abandoned and has started to relish the freedom of independence. But Johnston drops her into the hospital and a confrontation with her past, because there seems to be nobody else who can take charge and lift the burden of duty from her.

The hallmarks of most of her works are to be deliberately low-key and often shot through with dark humour and she is capable of summoning unforgettable characters with the sparsest sentences. Johnston is superb at dissecting ordinary life, at understanding the ties and strains that hold a family together and the contradictions at the heart of any human being. For her longstanding readers, Naming the Stars is yet another book to treasure, but for new readers it marks a good starting point into the true treasure trove of work.

I love so much about her, not least the fact that she is the ultimate writer’s writer, perpetually midway through writing a book and already fretting about how to write the next one. I never meet her without walking away lost in admiration and a sense of awe that has never gone away since I first read her back in the mid-1970s.
Dermot Bolger is a novelist, poet and playwright. His latest work is The Lonely Sea and Sky (New Island)

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