Shadows on our Skin by Jennifer Johnston

Jennifer Johnston’s Shadows on our Skin (1977) was shortlisted for the Booker. The winner that year? Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea.

Irish novelist and playwright, Jennifer Johnston

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.

Milkman by Anna Burns

Anna Burns pic
British writer from Northern Ireland, Anna Burns.

The very first line begins,

The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to by breast …

and it made me feel I was in safe hands; a safe writer’s hands. She could’ve used the simple word, somebody, but the capital letters and the Mc told me where she was and also her attitude to this person, it could’ve been one of many people from the place she comes from. Guns are rife. Even if you hadn’t read the Booker Prize announcement or the publicity it generated, or the back of the book itself and discovered Anna Burns is from Northern Ireland and always writes about the Troubles you could work it out: the use of Mc tells you it’s either Scotland or Ireland but the prevalence of guns tells you it’s probably Northern Ireland given it’s history which any reader must remember.

When one uses an article in front of a noun it gives information about that noun; “a success” means something different from “the success”: the former means success in general, the success of anything; the latter means  a particular success, the one we’re talking about. If there is no article the meaning is different again; it means the quality of success, success-ness. Anna Burns omits the article of the noun, brother-in-law; as in …

there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law,

… which suggests there is such a thing as brother-in-law-ness. The insinuation is that she has a lot of experience with brother-in-law-ness since this one is just the first one. It’s like a job – all plumbers are the same type, just like all brother-in-laws. And she doesn’t like them.

No one is named, but they have names. She calls her mother ma,  her name is ma; ma calls her middle daughter, she calls him maybe-boyfriend, and him, third brother-in-law, and her brothers, thingy, thingy, and thingy; she calls him, milkman. Not the milkman, just milkman; no article, so no name but with a name, milkman. Even though he has nothing to do with milk, not even its distribution, he has milkman-ness: he knows where everybody lives, especially daughters, and what they have for breakfast. Ah, but this is not to be confused with real milkman. This is a man of a rare kind.

The stream of consciousness can be daunting: each page is densely packed with words; direct speech, brief though it is, is imbedded in the paragraph, there is little page-space. It gives the impression of dense weight.

Yes, there is a narrative in the traditional sense. Let’s call this the plot. But the plot is sparse. The narrative is really inside her head; this young innocent girl trying to live a life in a war zone, but a war that isn’t an official war, but therefore it’s much more dangerous, because even the language is full of weapons, bullets, and grenades.

As regards this psycho-political atmosphere, with its rules of allegiance, of tribal identification, of what was allowed and not allowed, matters didn’t stop at ‘their names’ and at ‘our names’, at ‘us’ and ‘them’, at ‘our community’ and ‘their community’, at ‘over the road’, ‘over the water’ and ‘over the border’. Other issues had similar directives attaching as well. There were neutral television programmes which could hail from ‘over the water’ or from ‘over the border’ yet be watched by everyone ‘this side of the road’ as well as ‘that side of the road’ without causing disloyalty in either community. Then there were programmes that could be watched without treason by one side whilst hated and detested ‘across the road’ on the other side. There were television licence inspectors, census collectors, civilians working in non-civilian environments and public servants, all tolerated in one community whilst shot to death if putting a toe into the other community. There was food and drink. The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’. Placenames. What school you went to. What prayers you said. What hymns you sang. How you pronounced your ‘haitch’ or ‘aitch’. Where you went to work. And of course there were bus-stops.

The narrative inside her head, which the above quote gives you a taste of, is relentless – as thoughts are – and in the midst of all this danger – 80% of the book is this danger –  there is the simple plot: a much older man, milkman, is stalking her, and even if she doesn’t reply and just stands there letting him talk, even with her arms folded, not engaging with him, wishing he would go away, she doesn’t like him – she likes maybe-boyfriend – but he won’t go away – and when he does go away it’s as secretly and silently as he arrived – but he’s there long enough for them to be seen together. That is enough for chins to wag and tongues to spit. They were seen together so she, daughter, must be having an affair with milkman, and it must be true because Mrs Someone and Mrs Thingymabob said.  Even ma doesn’t believe her. What’s a girl to do?

Did I enjoy this novel? To start with, yes; but as it progressed it felt repetitive and over-written. The Man-Booker judges have, in recent years, favoured the experimental voice to the detriment, I believe, of story-telling and therefore of their readership. Although a stream-of-consciousness novel, James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late won in 1994 the past four years have seen more experimental novels taking the prize. New writing doesn’t necessarily mean better writing.

Here is a very short video of Anna Burns after winning the Man-Booker and talking briefly about the writing of her novel. She seems overwhelmed by the media attention, which given its intensity is understandable. I apologise for the god-awful and too loud backing music.

You can buy the kindle version here.

Lies of Silence by Brian Moore

Brian Moore Pic
Northern Ireland born Canadian writer BRIAN MOORE (1921 – 1999)

This review does not contain spoilers.

With Islam tearing itself, and most of the Middle East, apart at the seams because of denominational, ideological, and doctrinal differences it is easy to forget that Christianity has had it’s own experience of hatred, violence, bloodshed, and the corrosion of legal governance because of similar differences, and not that long ago: Northern Ireland; and the fact that the current conflict contains a large dose of post-colonial revenge doesn’t make it more different, it makes it more the same, just on a larger, international scale.

Brain Moore (1921 – 1999) Northern Irish born Canadian novelist wrote much about his homeland, the Troubles, and in no uncertain terms placed most of the blame on the Christian teachings – on both sides – of hate, entitlement, and rightness. Many of his books have been adapted for the screen: Intent to KillThe Luck of Ginger,  CoffeyCatholicsBlack Robe, and most notably The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987) starring Maggie Smith. He also wrote screenplays, some based on his own prose, but also, among many, Hitchcock’s Torn Curtin (1966). Graeme Green always liked to cite Moore as his favourite living novelist which was flattering but also, according to Moore, “a bit of an albatross.”

His 1990 and Man Booker Prize nominated novel Lies of Silence (he was nominated three times) is set squarely in the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland. Michael Dillon, a failed writer, now successful hotel manager in Belfast, is forced by masked IRA house-invaders to commit an act of terror or his wife will be killed. This in itself is a strong set-up but Moore raises the stakes. On the night of the house invasion he plans to tell his wife he wants a divorce, he has fallen in love with someone else and plans tomorrow to leave with her for London, but instead of the truth his wife’s insecurity about her looks and job prospects, and his guilt no doubt, causes him to try and bolster her lack of self-confidence and instead of the truth he is forced to let her believe that she is a woman a husband would never leave. They sleep. He will tell her in the morning but he never gets the chance. It’s a page turner; but more so because of the additional drama supplied by themes of religious hypocrisy, cowardice, faithfulness, loyalty, love and dishonour.

I thought all Booker Prize nominated novels were high on character, low on plot. Not this one; in fact plot takes pride of place but character isn’t neglected; it is effectively painted through, among other things, dialogue; heartening since there is a modern trend, particularly in Australia, where dialogue is looked down upon as a novelistic tool. Moira, Dillon’s beautiful wife, more beautiful than his mistress, Andrea, is cleverly painted through what she says and how she says it. She is no shrinking violet; she is ballsy, determined, and sassy – she stands up to the IRA home invaders – but at the same time insecure, bulimic, and frightened. Dillion’s ‘Soloman’s Choice’, makes for a great plot-driver: the terror target is his own hotel and the possible dead, by his hand, would include his staff, guests, and a right-wing preacher who is in fact the actual target of the attack. Dillion hates him but in the ‘will I/won’t I save my staff or my wife’ his duty to his staff and guests – hundreds of them – is compromised by the fact that if he saves them he also saves the preacher-arshole, who he believes deserves a bomb. I’m not spoiling it for you; this is just the set-up.

After reading and blogging about A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – a tome the size of a first-issue mobile-phone – remember them? – I raced through Moore’s and not just because of its normal paperback size: it was hard to put down. In the current reader-esque universe of keeping-up-with-the-latest-work-of-your-literary-heroes it’s very likely that you may have missed Brian Moore, I did – there’s so much to read! – but Moore is worth searching out if only as a relief from the intense literary fiction of today.

In his obituary in the Guardian (1999) the writer succinctly described Moore’s literary output as continually testing “even further the unremitting search of humanity for certainties in a remarkably unreliable universe. Almost two decades on and in another century that universe is, unfortunately, still remarkably unreliable.