Top critical review
on 15 July 2014
[This book was provided to me for no monies by the publisher, Open Road Media, facilitated in this act by NetGalley. I thanks them for it.]
I had never heard of Jennifer Johnston until this book cropped up in my feed, which is surprising given the amount she's written and the awards she's picked up. On the other hand, given the trouble I'm having trying to think of anything to say about this book, maybe I can understand it.
Published in 1977 and short-listed for the Booker Prize, Shadows on Our Skin is the story of a Catholic schoolboy's friendship with a young Protestant teacher in Northern Ireland. As can be expected from a literary work, we're in the land of people living their lives rather than a didactic "wouldn't it be nice if everybody was nice?" tale. The darkness and the politics of 70's Belfast is, for much of the book, subtext; we are given a boy's life, one of distant bangs and of a mother who angers when he doesn't come straight home from school, but only until we are not.
Shadows on Our Skin is beautifully written if a little opaque at times. Perhaps it is that I am coming to a contemporary work from a modern perspective, so I found things - and in particular, the delicately phrased ending - a little hard to get hold of. The narrative stays with Joe, certain events staying off-screen, and I had many questions about why certain characters did and didn't do things. It was the feeling of things I didn't get rather than one of plot holes.
This is well worth reading, but at the same time I rather lack enthusiasm for it. I'm going to give it 3.5 stars because the writing is wonderful, but on a purely personal level I didn't make an emotional connection with this book although I have a lot of objective appreciation for it.