I have similar feelings about established writers with a lengthy backlist. Sure, they’ve earned their place in those hallowed halls but, with a clutch of literary prizes on the mantelpiece, they don’t have to work so hard to stay there. So why did I pick up (the much lauded Irish writer) Jennifer Johnston’s fifteenth novel? Perhaps it was because I so enjoyed one of her late-ish works, This Is Not a Novel. Perhaps, as I discovered via musician Nick Cave’s wonderful The Death of Bunny Munro, and Peter Matthiessen’s moving final novel, In Paradise, exceptions do exist.
A woman returns to her childhood home following the death of a parent and, in the process, discovers some painful truths about her family which impact on how she perceives herself.
In contrast, Jennifer Johnston serves up flimsy characters, banal conversations, clichéd plot devices (such as truths revealed through the diary of a man who’s unlikely to have kept one), and intrusive snippets of the nursery rhyme from which she takes her title so dull even the main character becomes irritated with them:
The king was in his counting house … counting … counting … ‘Oh, shut up,’ she said aloud, ‘just shut up.’ (p161)
Yet my favourite part of the novel was a reference to another song which, for reasons that will become apparent should you ignore my advice and read the book, the narrator hated hearing her mother sing: Miss Otis Regrets by Cole Porter. (But I love it!)
Thanks to Tinder Press for my review copy and sorry I couldn’t agree with your description of “a brief masterpiece: acerbic, lyrical, witty and heartbreaking”– apart from, thankfully, that it was brief.