It is told by a young woman whose life takes a turn in 1970 when, after a trauma, she finds herself unable to speak. She tells the story from the vantage point of thirty years later when she is clearing out her father’s house and finds letters from him, her grandparents, and great-grandparents.
She begins by telling that she generally begins to write her fiction this way: she invents a setting, a landscape, a world that has no reality and then inserts her characters into that world. In contrast, she says this work is a message sent out into the world with the hope that her brother Johnny will see it and pick up the telephone. She says this piece of writing had been in her mind for some time and was “rather energetically seeking a way to get out, like a bird shut in a room, fluttering, flapping, and shitting from time to time on the carpet.”
The key figures make for an interesting story. There’s her unfeeling psychiatrist mother, always called Sylvia; her distant father, a surgeon; her beloved brother Johnny; Bruno, the German tutor who insinuates himself into the family in shocking ways; and my favorite, Mathilde, who takes care of the family. Mathilde is rude to Bruno from the moment he came into the house and after much interrogation of her, the young Imogen learns that Mathilde lost all her family in the Holocaust and had adopted Catholicism when she arrived in Ireland. She is unmoved by Imogen’s effort to convince her that Bruno was not responsible for her losses. It turns out that Mathilde was right to dislike Bruno.
Johnny disappears and is believed to have drowned while Imogen was in the psychiatric unit to recover her voice. Imogen never believed that he drowned because he was an Olympic-level swimmer and had reasons to want to disappear from the family. Johnny’s reasons, Imogen’s trauma, and Bruno’s betrayals are revealed bit by bit with the help of the revelations from the letters written by her father and others from previous generations that tell of their own tragedies. The gradual weaving together of the bits of the family’s history is beautifully done.
Both this book and The Gingerbread Woman play with unusual sounds which were done well in the audiobooks. In this one the echo across the water at the family’s summer home is a much loved feature for the children and reminds us of the tragedies and family disfunction in various generations.
Though the date of 1970 is clearly stated, there was nothing that tied the events to that time with the exception of Imogen’s declaration of independence which she would not have been able to do in earlier times. And that was done without reference to the spirit of liberation for women that was abroad then.
I look forward to making my way through Jennifer Johnston’s work.
Jennifer Johnston, This is Not a Novel: A Novel, Headline Book Publishing, 2002, 214 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available from Amazon.