I’m eternally grateful to my book club. As I think I’ve explained before, we have a fairly random way of choosing what we’re going to read. Sometimes it’s a disaster, and sometimes it comes up trumps. This is one of the latter times, and I’m very pleased that more of less by chance I’ve been introduced to this author and read this book. The Gingerbread Woman was published in 2000, and Johnston has written a number of novels before this, and several after it. But I found it a perfect introduction to her work.
Clara Barry has returned to Dublin from a stint in New York as a guest lecturer on Modern Irish Literature. ‘Not Synge, Yeats or Joyce. That’s a mug’s game; that’s big business these days, something I’ve got no head for.’ She specialises in writers such as Elizabeth Bowen, Edna O’Brien and John Banville. (I mention this here because these are the very writers Johnston can be compared with, though she self-deprecatingly claims that the Irish literary establishment considers her a second-rate writer.) Clara is recuperating from an initially unspecified operation – though the hurt seems as much psychological as physical – and finding it hard going. One day out walking she meets Lars, a young man exercising his dog; he too is miserable. Against both their expectations they become friends, and manage to get on with their lives the better for having met. I’m not giving anything away here. You can read that much on the back cover.
The story is deceptively simple. What matters is the relationships between the characters. Both Clara and Lars are unhappy and can be difficult; Johnston makes their interactions are wonderfully real. The other main characters are Clara’s doctor, her mother, and Lars’s wife Caitlin, now dead but still very much alive to him; they too have substance and authenticity. The book starts with Clara’s assessment of her mother as someone who ‘makes jam’. She also makes ‘shortbread biscuits, sponge cakes, rich fruit cake, brandy snaps … I’m sure you get the point.’ But Lars has quite another reaction to her when he meets her, and I was left with the feeling that Johnston is cleverly suggesting that Mrs Barry is subtly different from the impressions both have of her. It is she who articulates what is to me the key message of the book; that recovery from tragedy is a willed process. ‘We have obligations, you know, to the people who love us, if not to society,’ she says. Clara’s view of her relationship with the doctor is clearly not the same as his view of it, though this is never something Clara articulates – it’s just delicately indicated.
The structure of the story is also wonderfully subtle. Most of it is told in the first person by Clara; those sections that are from Lars’s perspective are in the third person. But as well as telling her story in the present, Clara is writing ‘notes’ for a novel to be called ‘The Gingerbread Woman’ that explain her recent history in New York, gradually bringing the reader up to date on the reasons for her return to Dublin. And Lars also spends a lot of time thinking about the past – in particular the death of his wife and child. When Clara learns his story, she thinks like the author she is that ‘maybe one day I may use his story; steal it from him,’ which is of course what Johnston in a sense has already done. So the story is operating on a number of levels at once in a very satisfying way.
Though I guess you could call the plot ‘domestic’, it has wider resonance with recent Irish history. Lars is from Northern Ireland, and the tragedy he experienced happened there. Several of Johnston’s earlier books deal with ‘the fading of the Protestant Anglo-Irish ascendancy in the 20th century’. That’s not really the case here, but Clara nevertheless doesn’t want know about events in Northern Ireland: ‘I just don’t want to hear about the North … None of the gutted-by-history-crap’. But she also admits ‘We’re no great shakes here either’, and though history provides the occasion for her meeting with Lars, it is the quality of the relationship between them that is important.
The book also raises the question of what it is in the style of a writer that lifts a book above the level of competent writing – because Johnston’s writing seems to me to be brilliant. Every word seems to be exactly right – though this in itself isn’t an explanation. Why is it right? How much is it that I like what she is saying, that it resonates with me? Consider, for example, this passage: ‘Why do I have … facetious thoughts clogging up my mind? Perhaps this is the reason why I have never become a highly regarded novelist or a major academic.’ But then she goes on the question whether ‘humorous self-deprecation’ is a symptom of ‘that middle class malaise called complacency’. It’s pure genius.
This is another book where Schubert is important – this time it’s Shepherd on a Rock. In a recent post on the crime story Death and the Maiden, I suggested that the cultural details seemed added to make it sound real, rather than somehow being integral to the story. That’s not the case here – or at least I didn’t find it so. You can listen to the song here. There’s not a lot about Johnston on the internet, but you can read a little about her and some of her books here.
PS Some of my book club friends thought Clara was over-dramatizing her operation. I bow to their greater knowledge, but didn’t let it spoil the story.