Jennifer Johnston was born on January 12, 1930, which means that today is her 82nd birthday. Remarkably, she is still churning out books — her last one, Shadowstory, was written when she was 80.
Her first novel, The Captain and the Kings, was published when she was 42. Since then she's penned 16 more. I have been making my way through them, slowly but surely, ever since I first discovered her, via a charity shop purchase, in 2006.
Recently, she was awarded a lifetime achievement award at the Irish Book Awards. (The picture, courtesy of the Irish Book Awards, shows her receiving her award from Joseph O'Connor.)
If you have not read her before, I'd suggest starting with her earlier work rather than her latter. I do have soft spots for The Christmas Tree, an exquisitely written tale about an Irish woman who returns home to die, and Shadows on our Skin, about a schoolboy in Derry during The Troubles, whose eyes are opened up to the world around him, but, to be honest, I've yet to come across a book by her that I have not liked. When it comes to a good yarn, she is remarkably consistent and dependable.
She also tends to write in a very stylised manner, often about writers or budding writers, and her characters are almost always from the Anglo-Irish ascendancy grappling with the past moving into the future. I love that she doesn't spell everything out for you and that you often have to work things out in your own head.
Today, in honour of her birthday, I finally got around to reading an essay about her in Twentieth Century Women Novelists, edited by Thomas F. Staley, which was published in 1982. (Hat tip to Dovegreyreader, who first alerted me to this book.) Granted that the piece — The Masculine World of Jennifer Johnston by Shari Benstock — was written when she only had five novels to her name, it deftly sums up her work as follows:
All of Jennifer Johnston's novels give the impression of time that has been stopped by the forces of history or of personal defeat against which the plot of the story races to bring what has been a non-story to some kind of dramatic climax. The act of the storytelling is itself an affront to the lethargy of the lives it describes, forcing actions upon settings and people who have resisted action for some indefinite period of time.
The Pocket History of Irish Writers adds that she is "skilled in building up and maintaining atmosphere" and that her novels are not saccharine.
Their tragedies convince; they have a limpidity of style, a naturalness of dialogue and a sure handling of plot. All these add up to an impressive achievement.
I have reviewed the following novels on this site:
- The Gates (1973)
- Shadows on Our Skin (1977)
- The Old Jest (1979)
- The Christmas Tree (1981)
- Fool's Sanctuary (1988)
- The Invisible Worm (1992)
- The Illusionist (1995)
- Two Moons (1998)
- The Gingerbread Woman (2000)
- Foolish Mortals (2007)
- Truth or Fiction (2009)
- Shadowstory (2011)
That leaves me with just five more to read!
To find out more about Jennifer Johnston: