In praise of Jennifer Johnston, by Eileen Battersby

Celebrating Irish women writers: ‘Jennifer Johnston is canny; her laconic narrators reveal her sophisticated grasp of the many faces of Irishness’

 Jennifer Johnston: Betrayal, hatred and the first World War have been major themes in her work. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Jennifer Johnston: Betrayal, hatred and the first World War have been major themes in her work. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Jennifer Johnston is canny; her laconic narrators reveal her sophisticated grasp of the many faces of Irishness. Precision tempers her theatrical instinct. Her narrators are watchers; several turn to writing to make sense of their situations. Most of them live inside their heads.

Indifferent to surfaces, Johnston prefers brisk implication. Hatred and betrayal have been major themes for her, as is the first World War. Although associated with the big-house novel through works such as The Captains and the Kings (1972), The Gates (1973), How Many Miles to Babylon? (1974), The Old Jest (1979) and The Invisible Worm (1991) – and it is Johnston who moved that genre on from the big house in the countryside to its logical conclusion, in the Dalkey and Killiney suburbs – as an artist she is primarily concerned with inner worlds. She shares a stylistic affinity with Elizabeth Bowen.

Johnston’s finest novels may be The Christmas Tree (1981), in which Constance Keating, waiting for death, calmly revisits her life, The Illusionist (1995) or Two Moons (1998) juxtaposing grandmother, mother and granddaughter.

Other favourites Elizabeth Bowen and Claire Keegan.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent

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