Shadowstory, By Jennifer Johnston

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The Independent Culture

This is the story of Polly, born in Dublin in 1940, and her uncle Sam: close companions, friends, and putative lovers - though the whiff of incest is kept at bay, along with a good deal else. Anything extraneous to the particular circumstances surrounding the young Polly is rigorously excluded. Jennifer Johnston's customary elliptical manner here reaches an apex of elimination. If her plot lines are getting thinner, though, her sense of atmosphere remains as richly alluring as ever. The bulk of the novel concerns Polly's halcyon days at her grandparents' house, Kildarragh, in County Clare - with a little friction, domestic and ideological, to keep things lively.

The theme is pared-down as far as it will go; but we get just enough information to fill most of the gaps for ourselves. Polly's father, Sam's oldest brother, is killed in the war (though Ireland is neutral, many Irish people, and especially Protestants, fight on the side of the Allies). Her mother Nonie marries again, in Dublin, and has two more children. Polly - as a child, then a schoolgirl, then an almost grown-up - is not unhappy at home in Sandymount, but her most intense emotional needs are fulfilled by Kildarragh: the house itself, the housekeeper Katie, the grandparents Geoffrey and Beatrice, the dog Pluto, the uncles, and most of all Sam.

The novel is awash in charm: never cloying, tempered by asperity and a wry engagement with some burning Irish issues of the day. And with change, loss, the effects of the passing of time. Suddenly, it's the mid-1950s, and Sam has gone to study at Cambridge - but not to stay there. Sam is, in fact, a pain in the neck. Instead of continuing his studies, he is off to Cuba, for some mysterious liberal humanist purpose - though his concern for humanity doesn't extend to safeguarding his parents' peace of mind. They are left in the dark. Polly is too, but at least the destination has been vouchsafed to her.

Unaware of the whereabouts of their disappearing son, the Kildarragh elders badger poor Polly for information they suspect she is keeping from them. Sam's motivations and intentions are shrouded in vagueness. So is the lack of resourcefulness, indeed near inertia, on the part of his parents. Sam's offstage Cuban escapade forms the central drama in the book, but a lesser drama concerns the engagement of another son-uncle, Harry, to a Catholic doctor's daughter, and the consternation engendered in Harry's father by the prospect of Catholic grandchildren. Not that he'd raise any objection to any such grandchildren choosing Catholicism: it's having the thing imposed on them that gets his goat. In the Ireland of Eamon de Valera and Archbishop McQuaid, one can understand his unease.

But plot, politics and goings-on are hardly the point. Shadowstory has many pleasures to offer a reader: elegance of style, sureness of touch, and above all the author's radiant descriptive gift.