A Strange Healing Process,
This review is from: The Gingerbread Woman (Paperback)
A short, beautifully formed novel about two damaged people who, against the odds and in an unlikely way, begin to heal themselves in each other's company.
Clara, a journalist and lecturer on Irish literature, has returned to her home in rural Southern Ireland following the collapse of a love affair in New York. She has undergone a traumatic operation (that we soon learn was connected with what happened while she was in the USA), and is slowly trying to face life again, while feeling it may be impossible. Lar (Laurence), a maths teacher, is visiting Southern Ireland to escape his home in the north and his memories of the tragedy that has destroyed his life - his artist wife Caitlin and his baby daughter were blown up in an IRA attack. Clara meets Lar while out walking, and on impulse invites him to stay for a few days in her cottage. A strange friendship develops between them, as they talk about their lives and relationships. Meanwhile, Clara is also writing a 'novel' telling the story of her time in New York, and while she is working, Lar is taking long walks, trying to reconcile himself to what has happened to him and work out how to continue to live. Finally, both characters have to say goodbye to the 'psychic retreat' in which they have placed themselves and face the real world again.
This is a beautifully written novel. Johnston's descriptions of Ireland are wonderful, and so are her observations of family relationships, such as Clara's difficult but warm relationship with her ultra-domestic mother and her friendship with the doctor who knows her secret, and Lar's troubled but loving relationship with his parents, and his flashbacks to life with Caitlin. Clara's time in New York is recounted in vivid detail (though I would have liked to know a little more about her past life and relationships in order to understand why she fell so impulsively for her lover in New York), and Johnston manages to make the denouement both heartbreaking and funny. Most cheering, there is a sense at the end of the novel that though things have not been simply resolved, both characters will survive and despite their unhappiness may still get a lot out of life. Clara may have lost the chance for one sort of life but seems to be discovering herself as a novelist, and Lar is finally reconciling himself to the horrible tragedy of his wife's death. This message of hope, which seems much stronger to me than when I last read this book eleven years ago, makes a moving conclusion to a well-told tale. I'm looking forward to re-reading more Jennifer Johnston soon, and have several volumes on my shelves.