Tuesday, September 23, 2008

significant writers: jennifer johnston

I thought I'd do a series of blogs on writers from around the world whose works have particularly impressed me. Most will not be that well known, I think (though you can always write in and surprise me and tell me you've known about them for decades), while others, like Alan Paton of South Africa, will certainly be familiar to many.

I have liked Jennifer's work for years. It began with the short novel Shadows on our Skin, a troubled tale set in Northern Ireland that is swiftly and brilliantly told, impossible to forget. I think I read The Railway Station Man after that, again about The Troubles, though this time set in the South, again hurtling into the mind with a high velocity impact. The third novel was Fool's Sanctuary, easily one of her best, set in Ireland during the South's war and break with England, yet, despite this background for the novel, surprisingly delicate and peaceful, idyllic, until the sort of denouement that always leaves you pondering the cliffs and crags and crevasses of the human condition.

Her writing is crisp and clipped and tight, not like Joyce at all, if you'd like to compare her to another Irish writer. She is not obscure or dense, like a fog over Dublin's busy harbour, but more like clear light striking the Kerry coast. Blades of grass and waterdrops on the blades are obvious and each grain of sand on the beach, each water-rounded stone, each gull feather in the surf, each whitecap racing to the land, all are finely engraved in the words with which she chooses to strike the imagination.

I remember a time in Carlow - I have visited Ireland at length on several occasions, once for an entire summer - when evening clouds pulled away and gold light lit up the countryside. How emerald the grass was, how precise the cottages and full-leaved trees, how black a stallion that ran over his pasture. That is the clarity of her writing.

It is very moral writing, yes, I'll say that, she cares about rights and wrongs, not so much in the political sense (as in siding with Republicans or Unionists), but in terms of how people treat one another, love or betray one another. She is not a cynic about human nature but she does not pull any punches either. Her writing wounds you but it blesses as well and any tears are well spent and any hurts well felt. You turn away grieving a bit, wary of those around you in this brittle world, yet with a sense that tragedies can be other than they are and we can choose different fates and often do choose different fates. Sometimes, of course, no matter how well we lay our plans, fate or life or God chooses something much different than we'd hoped, and the clean white porcelain walls come crashing down anyway. But even then, in her writing, we still get a feeling that there is another day and there can be light and space and other choices on that day as well, regardless of yesterday. Yesterday is not trivial or easily forgotten. But it is not a mill-stone about the neck either.


Dreamy said...

Hello:) I just stumbled upon this blog entry by doing a google blog search for Fool's sanctuary. I picked up a copy of this book in a charity shop today (literally an hour ago) for only 20 cents (Australian) and it is unread! I have never heard about the author, hence the google search. After reading your beautiful description I am so looking forward to start reading it. I will bookmark your blog and come back here to read more.

murray said...

hi Dreamy from Australia!

Hope you find out I finally got back to my blog and found your December comment & promptly published it. By now you must have read JJ's book, so why don't you write back and tell us if the story did anything for you? Without dropping any spoilers, I found the ending painful and sharp, with a final "morning after steep depth" feeling, but then all the novels of hers I've read leave me with that feeling.

cheers & I hope to hear from down under once again . . . :)