Book review: Naming the Stars

PUBLISHING her first novel in her early 40s Jennifer Johnston was, in current literary terms, a late bloomer. However, she has never stopped blooming and here is further proof that at 86 she is still in flower. 

Jennifer Johnston

Tinder Press, €12.35

In horticultural terms that makes her a perennial, constant and ever-valuable. Her prose is occasionally full-blown in style but never without finesse and her status while quiet is unassailable.

It is justified once more in the small dose offered by her novella Naming the Stars, produced here as a companion piece to Two Moons, her full-length novel of 1998. 

Readers get two for the price of one and there can be few better literary bargains available in Ireland today.

Jennifer Johnston: Complexity of emotional as well as physical territory is beautifully exploited in new combined publication. Picture: Ger Holland
Jennifer Johnston: Complexity of emotional as well as physical territory is beautifully exploited in new combined publication. Picture: Ger Holland

Affection for a long back-list (nearly 20 titles) with names which will never be forgotten in what amounts to a fictional history of 19th and 20th century Ireland can’t ameliorate critical perceptions of Johnston’s later work. 

Flattery gets the critic no-where with her and she is of the breed which detects flummery at a mile’s distance.

So let it be said that Naming the Stars could be more than it is. Two old women reminisce, their memories threading through one another like tributaries to a stream. 

One is, was, the chatelaine, the other her housekeeper of many years. That relationship has fused over time into one of interdependence, of ritual, of corrective recall, and with the corrections come revelation, a slow unburdening which illuminates the past without quite explaining it.

Enigma may be Johnston’s stock-in-trade, and secrets are on the top shelves of her store-cupboard, a space which is assumed too readily to be somewhere on the landings of old, big, decaying but beloved houses in the Irish countryside. But the house of the planter is not her only territory.

As a writer, Johnston moves from urban to rural with all the ease of familiarity and moves just as easily, or as skillfully, from great wars and their resonances to little domestic disturbances which from her pen resonate as profoundly as those detonated beyond the boundaries of geography and politics.

That complexity of emotional as well as physical territory is beautifully exploited in this combined publication: the later, shorter, more distilled work in Naming the Stars has a compact relevance to the earlier novel in terms of style and tone and in her talent for glancing dialogue.

Although this is a writer who can conjure a coincidence into probability without losing credibility, her narratives remain rooted in likelihood. 

It is not at all unlikely that a relationship of loyalty, tradition, and friendship can bind two old women together over what’s left in the winecellar and which horses to back at Leopardstown.

There is much more uniting them than these ordinary but pleasant things; the past has not been shared as they like to pretend, and it is Flora, the dreamy revenant, who has hidden its most vicious secrets even from Nellie, her companion and, perhaps, her keeper.

In these pages it is possible also to see Johnston herself as a revenant. There is some revisiting going on, a war, a mother, a lost brother, and an even longer absence of a father.

Local life from mass to the diligent doctor happens along, gardens offer hiding places for grief and for lies, teenage girls are purposely ignorant, and domestic staff are stupidly hopeful. 

Such a provenance gives shape to Johnston’s habit of confessional intrigue; it establishes a landscape as known and as actual as the moral landscape is enigmatic and in its own way obdurate.

Always elegant and always thoughtful, here as so often elsewhere she makes it impossible not to read on.


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