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on 5 June 2017
4★
This begins as a light-hearted, affectionate look at a young girl growing up in Ireland in 1920, after the end of WW1, but her childish, secret adventure turns serious and shows the dark divisions in Ireland.

Nancy was orphaned very young and has been raised in a friendly, loving household by her Aunt Mary, her befuddled grandfather (a retired Major), and the family cook (and philosopher), Bridie. Grandfather is in a wheelchair and keeps constant watch on the distant railway line with his ever-present binoculars.

Her journal introduces chapters in the first person. The rest is third person point of view. Today is Nancy’s eighteenth birthday.

“Today I want to start to become a person. My new year. My life is ahead of me, empty like the pages of this book, which I bought myself as a birthday present. It is not really a diary, more passing thoughts that give impressions of me, so that in forty years, if, as Bridie would say, I am spared, I can look back and see what I was like when I started out. It is so easy to forget. I have noticed that from watching Aunt Mary, not to mention Grandfather, but then he is a special case, being slowly devoured by extreme old age.”
. . .
“There always seems to have been a war. I suppose in forty years things will be much the same, in spite of what people say to the contrary. Even in this small village so many people have been killed.”

In spite of the “if you are spared” comments by Bridie and the family’s close connection with war, she thinks mostly about herself and maybe having a crush on a young neighbour who works in the city, and she likes to think she’s jealous of his girlfriend. But really, she doesn’t know what she thinks. She’s just itchy for LIFE.

She asks Aunt Mary, “’Don’t you ever need to tear yourself open and get out all that stuff that’s burning you inside?’

‘You sound as if you need a surgeon rather than a friend. Tut! It’s part of the mythology of youth that people go round burning themselves up inside. It’s not like that at all, pet. Most people lead and want to lead calm, equilibrious…’ She laughed and repeated the word … ‘equilibrious lives.’ She reached out and touched Nancy’s hand. ‘There’s no point in making life more difficult than it has to be.’”

But equilibrium is the furthest thing from her mind. She finds a little deserted beach hut and claims it as her own, taking some books and putting up a shelf, much the way a lot of us might have found a little hidey-hole of our own in the bush or up a tree.

One day, she discovers someone else has been in her hut. Still, she continues on her merry way, wondering about who her father was, wondering what her mother was like, wondering what she will do when she grows up. And then she meets a very different boy about her own age and has to grow up.

I enjoyed the Irish weather on the page but wouldn’t in real life. It’s sunny, then almost immediately wet. People are always soaked, having to race inside to dry off and get into a hot bath. But that’s what makes the Isle so Emerald.

“The wind was soft and rain promising, though the sun was shining brightly. Round the horizon great piles of clouds waited their moment.”

I also enjoyed the gentle humour, usually around Aunt Mary and her friends, two sisters with whom she played cards, drank whisky and gin and dressed up and went to the races. The sisters have returned from their trip to France.

“The tall Miss Brabazon moved over to their Daimler and began to pat its bonnet as if it were a horse.”
. . .
“Nancy wondered if she were about to offer the car an apple. ‘And dear old car behaved like a perfect gentleman. Didn’t he, George?’ The small Miss Brabazon nodded.”
. . .

‘He never even flinched at French petrol.’”

The title comes from Grandfather saying to Nancy, “‘Someone once said ‘Death is an old jest, but it comes to everyone’”. He guesses Kipling, and when she corrects him, saying Turgenev, he suddenly blurts out that he never liked the Russians.

Bit by bit, piece by piece, war and conflicts intrude. Difficult times.

Thanks to NetGalley and Open Road Media for the copy for review from which I’ve quoted.
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This book deals with loss (as do most of Jennifer Johnston's) and the cynicism built into society. But if that sounds grim please don't be put off. It's a beautifully written account of youth and age in a society in transition (Ireland, early 1920s) and conjures wonderful pictures of a particular time and place. For me it lies somewhere on an arc which begins with Somerville and Ross, runs through William Trevor, and ends with Molly Keane. And there's not much higher praise than that.
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VINE VOICEon 25 February 2007
This is a compelling story of young woman from a crumbling Protestant Ascendancy family caught up in the turmoil of the Irish troubles around 1920. Wondefully descriptive in terms of both place (it's set in & around Dublin)and characters, it packs a great deal into fewer than 170 pages.

It was also made into a fine film called "The Dawning", with Anthony Hopkins, Trevor Howard, Jean Simmons & Rebecca Pidgeon (not a bad cast for a low-budget Arthouse film!)
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I don’t think Jennifer Johnston could write badly if she tried, and this novella demonstrates her usual understated, spare and controlled style very well indeed. With never a word wasted, she conjures up an atmospheric and haunting episode in the life of a young girl who gets caught up in the Irish political turmoil of the 1920s. Having said that, this is not one of my favourites of her novels as I found the central character hard to engage with, but as a portrait of this turbulent time in Ireland's history it is both convincing and moving.
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