Friday 15 December 2017

Review: Fiction: Shadowstory by Jennifer Johnston

Headline Review, £14.99

It's the 1950s and at a New Year's party teenager Polly finds herself in bed with Sam, whom she's adored since they met as children at his family estate in Co Clare.

Five years her senior, Sam has loved her with equal fervour, but his restless nature has caused him to be so elusive that no one knows where he is at any given time.

Now, though, after an impassioned conversation during which "he pulled me close and kissed my mouth with such sweetness that I almost fainted", he and Polly are in bed, though nuzzling together is the nearest they get to physical consummation.

The reason for that may lie in the fact that Sam is Polly's uncle, the much younger brother of her father, who was killed in World War Two when she was a small child.

But what's curious about this 18th novel by the 81-year-old Jennifer Johnston is that the incestuous nature of their relationship doesn't seem to dawn on the smitten duo.

Or, indeed, to bother the author, who's so intent on evoking Polly's idyllic part-time existence among doting grandparents in their rural abode that she opts to ignore the troubling -- indeed, potentially calamitous -- implications at the heart of her story.

Like William Trevor, Johnston has always been concerned with a vanished past and with inimical intrusions into lives that seek to preserve old values and customs, but though various issues get addressed here (the ne temere decree that children of a Protestant parent must be raised as Catholics enrages the grandfather), nothing really seems to be at stake.

And matters aren't helped by characters who seldom transcend their allotted roles or by the unrelentingly arch dialogue in which everyone gushes "darling" and "dear" so often that the reader feels smothered by all the goodwill.

At the end, as Polly looks back on her girlhood from the distance of a half-century, we learn that her relationship with Sam came to nothing, but as he was such a sketchily drawn character from the outset, the reader feels no pang of regret or loss.

"That's all there is, really," Polly reflects. "Not much of a story, I'm afraid. Just the slipping away of a house from its loving family, the breaking up of a family, not through any fault of their own, but circumstances, history you might say."

Indeed you might, and the same could be said of some of William Trevor's fiction, but this book, alas, is Trevor-lite, with none of that author's psychological rigour or emotional insights.

John Boland

Indo Review

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