Shadows on Our Skin by Jennifer Johnston


Now I’ve read four books by Jennifer Johnston and continue to be impressed by her work. This one was shortlisted for the Booker prize. She is not a well-known writer outside Ireland and without Reading Matters I would not have known about her.

In the first book I read by her, The Gingerbread Woman, the main character declares to a visitor that there will be no talk of “the North” in her house, no “gutted-by-history crap.” This book, on the other hand, is all about “the North.”

It was written in 1977 and though I couldn’t discern its specific time period, the Troubles are well underway. It’s set in Derry and there is street fighting most days, including the murder of two policemen. It centers on young Joe, an inattentive (at best) student, whose father is always at home or at the pub, having been broken by some unnamed resistance action in the distant past. His mother struggles to earn money,  keep the family fed and clothed, and is unable to do all this on her own without becoming unlovable. She has kept Joe away from friends after school in the hopes he will be safe at home. She advises the older son Brendan to keep working in England where he is safe, but of course he comes home. She is very clear that any heroic fighting has no meaning for her; she doesn’t believe that the fighting will create her ideal of a country which provides a safe life and a secure economy.

Without going into the specifics of the plot, I will say I found the complications of being a teenage boy and member of the oppressed minority in the midst of wartime surprisingly readable. I liked some of the connections the author creates. A lonely woman teacher whose family lives elsewhere befriends Joe as a little brother while Joe, not surprisingly, has a crush on her. Brendan shows love for his unappealing father and sees him as a hero. Under the pressure of a nighttime house-to-house police search, Joe shows himself to be quick-witted and brave.

Jennifer Johnston, Shadows on Our Skin, first published 1977, many editions, 228 pages (I read the Kindle version).

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