The Old Jest by Jennifer Johnston


This is my fifth Jennifer Johnston book and, as usual, I was glad to have given it my attention. She is an amazing Irish author, almost unknown in this country. This one is set a few years after the end of World War I and focuses on Nancy Gulliver, who has just turned 18. Having been orphaned, she lives with her Aunt Mary and her grandfather who is moving into dementia. Bridey cooks and cleans for them, and Jimmy does the outside work. Nancy’s mother died in childbirth, but is present in Nancy’s life by way of many physical manifestations, like her bed and other furnishings. Her father is completely absent, so that Nancy wonders if any man she meets might be her father.

The “almost war” of independence from Britain is on and much in the thoughts of everyone. Nancy is in love with a man of 25 who dismisses her as irritatingly childish and he’s right about that. But her foolish questions do deserve more than the dismissal he gives them. His own love interest is Maeve, who is so unpleasant that she reveals to Nancy that her father plans to buy their house and the land around it to develop housing. It was news to Nancy that Aunt Mary had no choice and they would be fortunate to receive the money and live in a small place while Nancy went off into the world to make her way.

Nancy spends time on the nearby beach and has a hideaway she considers her own private spot where she stashes books. She learns someone else has been there and thus gets to know an older man who had grown up nearby, but as Nancy correctly surmised, was part of the war for Irish independence. The dramatic events of the book relate to him.

Nancy’s grandfather provides the auditory background that is always part of books by Jennifer Johnston. Grandfather sings, or perhaps intones is a better word, “Abide With Me,” giving a melancholy backdrop for conversations. The thorough description of the people on a train Nancy takes to Dublin is accompanied by the sound the train makes. “Clickety-clunk, clunkity-click.”

In one of Nancy’s conversations with her secret friend, he defends his killing by citing her grandfather, who received medals for his killing. “He wasn’t even killing to defend his own fatherland. Indeed the very opposite. He was taking other people’s land away from them, creating an empire for a little old lady with a thing like a tea cozy on her head.” And later, “And yet he is a lovable, irritating old man who mumbles and sings and will probably die, as every man should, in his own bed and some people will cry.”

Grandfather, in one of his musings on the past says, “Someone once said, ‘Death is an old jest, but it comes to everyone,'” and speculated that it was Kipling who said that but Nancy corrected him:  it was Turgenev. And the quote is “Death is an old jest, but it comes new to everyone,” and is from Fathers and Sons. That “new” seems to do important work.

I was glad to drop into this quiet household that was in the midst of the maelstrom of those times in Ireland.

Jennifer Johnston, The Old Jest, H. Hamilton, 1979, 167 pages (I listened to the audiobook).

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