Haunting novella with malignant twist
Fiction: Naming the Stars, Jennifer Johnston, Tinder Press, pbk, 106 pages, €14.99
Jennifer Johnston is one of our most prolific authors and one of our most respected but, curiously, she is also one of our most regularly overlooked. In 1972, Johnston published her first book, the award-winning The Captains and the Kings, and she has published a further 17 works since. Her debut charted the decline of the Big House in Ireland, and these social divides and the repercussions from them are a common thread in her writing. She is also recognised for her ability to create atmosphere without overly indulging in saccharine nostalgia.
In her latest work, Johnston introduces us to Flora, now in her near dotage and living still with her family's housekeeper, Nellie, the two survivors of this complicated household. Flora has lived something of a protected life, she even now seems incapable of taking control, making real decisions, as if her maturity was interrupted at a pivotal point and she has remained ever a girl.
The novella's title is explained early into the story. Nellie used to go to the cinema in Bray every Thursday with Bernie from the post office and on the way home the two girls would sing all the songs from the film and they would name the stars after all their favourite film stars, Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire. Nellie had asked if they could bring Flora with them one Thursday but, as Flora predicted, the mistress said no.
Flora and Nellie now live their lives buffeted from the outside world by comfortable routine, the most important moment being the six o'clock angelus, which marks the opening of a bottle of wine, possibly not the only bottle for that evening. Their time is spent in the past, reminiscing and reliving, the key characters in their stories and their lives are long dead.
The world that they return to is Flora's family home, particularly to the summer when Flora's brother Eddie told her his secret.
Eddie was just two years older than Flora, almost 18, and his plan was to join up rather than return to school. He had visions of becoming a soldier hero like their father, who himself had been killed in the Battle of El Alamein.
This decision provokes emotional ripples in Flora, her loyalty and love for her brother, her fear that he could suffer the same fate as their father, and her need to not be the only bearer of this fateful secret.
Here, late in their lives, Nellie and Flora are finally talking, speaking to each other as peers, though vestiges of their different social statuses remain. It seemed like everything had been said, but now they are saying what should have been said years ago. And Eddie's enlistment was not Flora's only secret. Nor was it the most devastating.
Johnston has chosen the more concise novella form for this new work, it is just 106 pages long. This allows the story to have enough room to breathe without too many unnecessary flourishes, though there is a softness to it that belies its malignant twist.
She has also decided to publish it as a companion piece to her 1998 novel Two Moons. The relationship between the two works is one of shared tones, of romantic notions, of buried truths. Two Moons is in many ways an illustration of the futility of love, as one of the central characters Mimi notes, "dreams only lead to trouble". And, in Naming the Stars, love once again proves too weak to be victorious and too dangerous to be sufficient.
Johnston also proves herself to be a writer not afraid to introduce dark and difficult subjects and in a manner that makes them believable.