Foolish Mortals by Jennifer Johnston

Shakespearean sleight of hand in middle-class, cosmopolitan Dublin
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Jennifer Johnston's latest novel begins with a recovery and ends with a death. After a car accident, Henry wakes up in a hospital bed with broken bones and partial amnesia. His second wife Charlotte, who was driving, has been killed. "Dear God, do you think he doesn't know?" The exclamation is his first wife's, Steph's. What Henry knows and doesn't know is an element of the plot.

The action is centred on Henry's relations, the O'Connors, and their forceful presences. Various strands of narrative are intriguingly intertwined: Steph's story, her daughter Ciara's, and that of Henry's mother, Tash. If the novel has a protagonist, it is not Henry but Steph, whose role is to hold things together while not giving up one iota of her cherished independence.

Henry is the proprietor of a Dublin publishing firm. His capricious and flamboyant mother, Tash, is a painter. Henry's first marriage produced two offspring: Ciara, still a schoolgirl, good-hearted, self-dramatising; and Donoghue, who makes no bones about being gay. These children, we understand, suffered by their father's defection as a consequence of a romantic escapade.

Now a Shakespearean sleight of hand comes into play. It's uncertain whether it was Charlotte or her twin brother Jeremy who captivated Henry. Wicked, whiskey-drinking Tash has knowledge of the true state of affairs, but keeps it to herself. Puck's insight – "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" – is a running motif, as Henry's midsummer night's dream is overtaken by autumn and then winter.

Part of Johnston's plan is to point up the discrepancy between instinctive parental pangs and sensible liberal precepts, in present-day, cosmopolitan Dublin. As ever, she marshalls her cast of characters with subtlety, charm and aplomb. With Tash, for example, we are treated to the onset of senile dementia, with its comic disconcertingness along with its harrowing potential. Tash is not a good mother but her frailties are forgiveable, just as Henry's transgressions are. As all these foolish mortals converge for a ticklish reunion at Christmas, one awaits the outcome with bated breath.

Part of the author's achievement here is to undermine, with her customary elliptical deftness, conventional ideas about family relations and activities. Various kinds of female strength cancel out various masculine weaknesses as Johnston remains alive to the oddity, and the nuances, of middle-class updated Irish life.

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