A Sixpenny Song by Jennifer Johnston - book review: an evocative tale of escape and remembrance


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The Independent Culture

The titles say it all. Foolish Mortals, Truth or Fiction, Fool's Sanctuary, Grace and Truth, The Invisible Worm: Jennifer Johnston announces an enduring concern with human frailties, lies and secrets, loss and pain, family sins. The current title might seem to have a more cheerful ring about it – until it becomes plain that the novel (novella, really) incorporates the more alarming implications of the nursery rhyme from which the phrase is borrowed. "When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing" or, in this instance, the seeker after truth is confronted with more truth than she might have looked for.

Annie Ross is a typical Johnston heroine: quirky, outspoken, vulnerable and brave. She is working in a bookshop in London, has an ambition to run a bookshop of her own, and has just learned that her father has died and left her the family home outside Dublin (his second wife has got the money).

Annie and her father have not been on affectionate terms. She returns to Ireland filled with thoughts of her fractured upbringing, the mother who died when Annie was eight, the father from whom she fled at 18. His plans for her career did not accord with her wishes. The world of finance, his sphere, held no appeal for her. She is a person of decided views.

The themes of A Sixpenny Song are escape and remembrance. "Remember," Annie's mother Juliet (Jude) had instructed her daughter. "Just remember, there's a good girl." But what exactly is Annie to remember? And what if her memories of Jude are burdened with unpalatable truths? Jude's story begins to emerge, bit by bit, to unsettling effect.

Jude is fragile and flimsy, and discontent tells strongly against her. She drinks. Tales about her mother are told to Annie, back in Ireland, by an elderly neighbour and artist, Miss Dundas, and by Miss Dundas's nephew Kevin, who appears to be an odd-job man but isn't. Some bygone diaries come into the picture. More was going on than met the eye – at least, the eye of an eight-year-old. The grown-up Annie has some hard choices to make, and some adjustments to her childhood recollections.

A Sixpenny Song is short, elliptical and evocative, in Johnston's usual manner. It is set in the modern world, but has a feel of timelessness and a kind of decorative poignancy. Simple, even playful on the surface, it – like the nursery rhyme – carries an emotional charge. Someone's nose is going to get pecked off. As ever, Johnston marshals her material with deftness, charm and aplomb, makes an enticing tale of it, and keeps her narrative concise.