Jennifer Johnston’s Shadows on our Skin (1977) was shortlisted for the Booker. The winner that year? Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea.
There is so much going on on Johnston’s Page 1: The protagonist, young Joe NOT paying attention in maths class; writing a daring poem about hating his father and wishing him dead; Miss McCabe, the frustrated teacher, squeaking her chalk to demonstrate the glories of the equilateral triangle – each image illuminating an unwritten, but acknowledged, back-story. Joseph Logan has such a miserable home life (a ruined, bitter, and abusive father and a disappointed, sour, but high-principled mother) but dispite his dour life, almost McGahern*-ish, the writing is so vivid. Everything is so clear. Johnston puts sound (squeak squeak of the chalk), thoughts of the characters (Because I hate you so), little telling actions (Hot fat spotted the floor) into the narrative, as well as comments from the narrator (The conversation wasn’t exactly swinging). You have to be vigilant and take notice of the tiny singular quotation marks: it’s important that you know what is said and what is thought, and who thinks it. It’s a rich and full tapestry of little black marks, full of meaning, that make up a page of narrative. But the most telling and useful writer’s tool she uses is dialogue. I know of one Australian teacher of creative writing who advises her students (or used to) to steer clear of dialogue. What a misguided and anti-creative piece of advice! Dialogue is one of the most effective, useful, and versatile tools a writer can have. A line of speech can paint a character more effectively than a paragraph of description. Needless to say, I enjoyed it immensely; more than half of this text has people talking, with very few adverbs. It’s clear, by the words they use, how they are spoken.
The story is set during The Troubles, in the early 1970s, in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. There’s always gunfire in the distance. Joe sees a young woman sitting on a wall. He’s noticed her before but one day he sits down next to her. Her name is Kathleen, she’s a teacher, a chain-smoker, and family-less. All three attributes alien to the boy. This meeting and their growing relationship provides the catalyst for the narrative. His older brother Brendan comes back from England but what he does when out at night remains a mystery. The father lives on his past triumphs as a fighter against the British, but now that his health is rapidfly declining it’s only his memories, or fantasies, that sustain him. The mother is stoic and sour, bitter about her lot as bread-winner and carer of a useless man but diligent in her responsibilities. Love seems as alien as good weather. And the British soldiers and gunshots get ever closer.
And then one day Brendan meets Kathleen… no spoilers here.
I was convinced that the narrative would end tragically, and yes it doesn’t end well but quite differently to what I expected.
My book-fairy (an Irishman retired to Brussels who comes to my island home bearing books twice a year) introduced me to Johnston via her 1974 novel How Many Miles to Babylon?, a WWI tale of class, affection, and betrayal. I now want to read more. Her last published book was Naming the Stars (2015). She lives near Dublin.
Some years ago, I received an email from an English writer; she obviously found my contact details on this blog. She wasn’t having much success with getting her work published so she founded her own publishing house. She was impressive and obviously determined and entrepreneurial. She asked me to review her novel and post it on my blog. I was happy to oblige. My expectations were misguided. The writing was long-winded and verbose. It appeared the writer’s main aim was to impress the reader with her vocabulary and lengthy sentences. I read the prologue twice; there was tension in the text, but still I had no idea where the two characters were nor what they were talking about. I replied to her carefully but pointed out that simple and clear sentences were the best way to tell a story. I ultimately blamed myself telling her that ‘I was not the reader for her.’ I should recommend this book to her.
The BBC filmed it in 1980, directed by Jim O’Brien with a screenplay by Derek Mahon.
Here is a short, but surprising, clip of Jennifer Johnston talking about writing.
You can purchase the book in various formats here.
*John McGahern (1934 – 2006) the Irish writer famous for his bleak settings: the squat Irish homes of the rural poor, usually dominated by a deeply religious, unforgiving, and brutal husband and father.