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4.3 out of 5 stars
Shadows on our Skin
Format: Paperback|Change
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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.
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on 22 April 2013
I read this in Derry when I was visiting my Grandparents and I loved it from the first page. It is a book which engages the personal and political aspects of Derry in the Troubles, but through the eyes of a young boy. His innocence perhaps makes some of the wider themes a little more difficult to understand if you don't know some of the history surrounding the Troubles, but even as a novel about a boy trying to cope with his stressful home life, this book is wonderful. The fact that
it works on so many different levels is what makes it such a treat to read! Also, as someone who demands realistic and well developed characters, this book provided me with something very satisfactory. Each character has a distinct personality and despite their flaws, it is easy to sympathise with each. When the story reaches its end you will find understanding for all of the characters, though you may not agree with their actions.

From the fear of the British Army and the IRA, to fear of the darker aspects of each characters in the book, there is certainly dynamic realism which well represents the political and private aspects of Ireland in the 70's, and how they connected. I don't want to ruin the plot, so in order to find out how you'll have to read it for yourself! You won't be disappointed!
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 24 July 2014
Originally published in the 1970's when Northern Ireland was in the midst of "The Troubles" where Catholic was pitched against Protestant and Irish against British. British soldiers walked the streets of Northern Ireland, homes were raided on the search for IRA soldiers and supporters. These were turbulent and frightening times for anybody to live in, especially a child.

Shadows on Our Skin is the story of a young dreamer called Joe who lives with his ailing, cranky sick father and harsh, resentful mother in Northern Ireland. He has a gentle soul, the environment does him no favours, he escapes through thinking up and writing poetry but each day he faces the reality of the world he lives in.

This is an atmospheric book, you really are transported back to these difficult times, you can sense the fear, the suspicion, the trauma all around. Joe meets a young teacher and strikes up an unusual friendship with her. It never revealed Joe's age, but I would guess between 12-14 years of age, the teacher is a young women and she chooses to befriend him, at first I was suspicious of this relationship, wondering if it was inappropriate but this teacher really just wants to bring a smile into a young boy's life and I think she is lonely too. She too has her secrets.

Then the spanner in the works turns up, Joe is happy with his new friend, writing poetry for her and feeling someone understands him at last. The "spanner" is his older brother Brendan who returns from working in London back home. Suddenly Brendan and his friend are talking and spending time together and Joe has to deal with a lot of intense emotion around it. He's a really wonderful character, young Joe, I just wanted to give him hugs and tell him it would all be okay.

In part, a coming of age story as Joe deals with some very mature situations that he faces, choices he makes and who he is becoming. It's a poignant and powerful book that really does reflect the awful times that children had to live in during the 1970's in Northern Ireland. Joe is but a victim of the civil war going on all around him.

A series of events split his world apart, and Joe is left to process the consequences of things he has done and choices he made. Shadows on Our Skin is a book that is quick and enjoyable to read, but also evokes sadness and seriousness as you absorb the life of the characters within it.

The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and I am not surprised, it's very well written and has stood the test of time with many readers. I think the author did a marvellous job or portraying the characters of Joe's father and mother, I really was right there, in their tiny little kitchen as his mother poured the tea and his father complained about how he was once a hero but no more.

I escaped into Joe's world and glad I did. An engaging and meaningful novel.
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on 24 June 2014
This may be a book "of its time" (& place) as it is set in and originally published 70s Northern Ireland during the Troubles. However I found it a very worthwhile read now with an insight into a microcosm of life there at that time. Seen through the eyes of Joe, a young boy, and his family in Derry (Londonderry) it paints an effective and evocative picture of the time and place. It is beautifully written with a very poetic feel to it not least of which because poetry interests Joe far more that many other aspects of his life even when he meets another adult from outside his family. I found Joe's character very easy to become involved with combining the hopes and fears of a young boy with those of his family and his new friend.

Woven through it very effectively is a Horslips song (Time to kill) both as poetry and as a form of commentary on the Troubles which begin to touch Joe and his family rather more. The book clearly shows a tiredness with the situation and at times is really quite dark. However it is also soft in a very Irish way and has strands of hope and light in it. At the time it was first published (1977) some of the views expressed would have been very provocative however it is easy to see why it was well regarded at the time and for me it still reads very well indeed in the current time. I really enjoyed it and would happily recommend it to anyone with an interest.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 21 June 2014
Joe Logan is a teenager growing up in Derry, Northern Ireland in the 70s, with the Troubles at their height. Their presence is palpable throughout the novel, whether as a potential danger, a night-time raid or just the sound of gunfire in the distance. But for Joe they are just a way of life and he is more concerned with negotiating life at home and school. Jennifer Johnston’s skill at characterisation is evident here, as Joe, a sensitive boy, comes alive on the page, and his relationship with a lonely teacher who befriends him is both poignant and moving. This is a gentle book set in troubled times, told in Johnston’s trademark spare and understated style and a compelling account of growing up in Northern Ireland. All her characters are lost or lonely or damaged in some way, and the atmosphere is one of hopelessness. A melancholy although not a depressing read and one that vividly conjures up a terrible time in Irish history. I loved this book, as I do all of Johnston’s writing. Published originally in 1977, it isn’t perhaps as good as some of her later novels, but it’s nevertheless a compelling and absorbing story, and the interweaving of the personal and political is skilfully handled. Highly recommended.
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on 25 October 2015
A haunting story of love, an unlikely though touching friendship, loneliness and hope, set against a backdrop of the "Troubles" in Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland during the 1970's. I was delighted to find that Shadows on our Skin has finally been made available in Kindle format. Now if the original TV drama version were to be released on DVD, that really would be a treat!
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on 4 September 2015
Eloquent evocation of a truly s***ty situation and bringing home to me the grinding dailiness of living in Derry in the 1970s.
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on 9 March 2016
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on 24 June 2013
It really wasn't what I expected. I didn't feel that it was value for money. It was a bit repetitive and dull.
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