Rescuing real lives from memory’s aspic jar
Preoccupation with the past and memory again a dominant theme in Jennifer Johnston’s latest novel
Novelist Jennifer Johnston is preoccupied with memory. Photograph: Alan Betson
A Sixpenny Song
Annie has been living contentedly in London for 10 years, working in a bookshop, when she gets word that her father has died. She sheds no tears – or, as no-nonsense Annie puts it, she doesn’t blub. She had always disliked Dada. But she flies back at once, to the large house on 10 acres perched on a hill in south Dublin.
Here she is received by her stepmother, a woman she has never liked either. Mrs Number Two Wife is elegant and chilly – though, equally, Annie could not be said to be warm. Over tea and cake – Annie refuses the cake – they have one of those polite but antagonistic conversations that are a Jennifer Johnston forte, in which Annie declines the offer to see Dada’s body lying in a nearby room, and learns that he has left her the house.
Mrs Wife Number Two decamps gratefully to Monte Carlo with Dada’s cash and Annie, with little ado, decides to stay in Dublin. She will put the house on the market and open a bookshop, which is all she has ever wanted, in Glasthule. This is surprising, as, in the novel at least, she never opens a book or thinks about a book, and Dublin exerts no obvious emotional pull. It seems to represent an act of rebellion against her money-obsessed father and an act of homage to her beloved long-dead mother, Jude – fey, beautiful, unhappy Jude, whose refrain of “Remember”, murmured often in Annie’s childhood, follows her as she walks the empty rooms of the house.
Soon there is a real follower about the house in the person of Kevin, odd-job man and vaguely lost soul. He is the nephew of Miss Dundas, who also lives on the hill and was Jude’s friend and confidante.
Kevin and Miss Dundas have many secrets to spill about Jude. They each have their own truths about her mysterious ways and tragic end. But it turns out to be Dada, speaking from the grave through his diaries, who is the most revelatory.
Readers of the author’s previous novels will recognise A Sixpenny Song as quintessential Johnston. The characters of poor little rich girl, fey and passive mother, domineering father. A world of large and lonely houses, devoted nannies, the significance of piano music and its echoes in the present. Silences, secrets, unwanted truths. Running away from the past, usually to England. Above all the preoccupation with the past and with memory, and the unreliability of both.
With such a preoccupation the dramas of the lives of Dada and Jude are necessarily filtered through memory, Annie’s or Kevin’s or Miss Dundas’s. And, towards the end of the novel, rather lamely in Dada’s stilted diary entries. Johnston’s characteristic method of dealing with the past is not to go there directly but to examine its enigmas from the standpoint of the present. The action takes place off stage, related second-hand.
You could argue that for Johnston the real and important action is the workings of memory in itself. Her protagonists are often engaged in an all-consuming struggle to free themselves from its afflictions.
The problem here is that Annie is too sketchily drawn for us to fully engage with her struggle. Dada and Jude, for all their faults, at least were yearning creatures. He filled the house with flowers, came back happy from the races, wanted to be loved. As did she, trailing wistfully around the house and playing her songs and going rapidly to the bad. Somehow Annie’s desire for a chimerical bookshop doesn’t cut it in comparison.
If she is damaged she doesn’t show it. Though, to give her her due, neither does she claim it. She is not given to introversion on her own behalf. Any intensity going is given to her vanished parents and their stories. Annie is little more than a device for listening. She has no life to speak of for herself.
Johnston is noted for her brevity, the pared-back quality of her writing. In A Sixpenny Song, though, this admirable quality can be a little meagre and perfunctory. That we are in Dublin of the present day is referenced by a few dutiful remarks about Glasthule’s gentrification. Annie’s present, though she was born in 1982, betrays little trace that she is living in contemporary times. She is oddly quaint; has no social life, no love life, certainly no iPhone. Her thoughts are confined to her childhood, her language often that of some nursery of old.
And those diaries that yield up to Annie the final shock to her interpretation of the past – she finds them on open access, as you might say, in her father’s office. But would Dada have left them there for anyone to read when he was so bent on secrecy? Wouldn’t Mrs Number Two Wife, who emptied the house, have taken the relevant ones – she seems to have been fond of Dada, and he describes her flatteringly in them – to Monte Carlo?
Should these apparent laxities matter? Unfortunately they make the novel less credible, weaken the contract between writer and reader of belief in the world of the novel. Characters and story amount to less than the theme.
Yet Johnston’s skills are also apparent. Deftly the relevance of the title, from the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence, is made clear. If Dada was the king in his counting-house, Jude may have been the queen in her parlour, eating bread and honey. As Annie faces the dark realities, the wrecked fictions of her created past, and her altered future, we believe in her.
Anne Haverty’s most recent novel is The Free and Easy.