Truth or Fiction, By Jennifer Johnston

Writer's life has mystery appeal
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The Independent Culture

The absence of a question mark in Jennifer Johnston's title removes a teasing or playful element. Instead, it seems to offer a plain statement: take your pick. It is either a portrayal of the author's father, the playwright Denis Johnston, in wayward old age; or a wholly invented narrative featuring imaginary characters who share a few traits with people remembered from the past.

Actually, of course, it is both – though readers familiar with the basic facts of Denis Johnston's life will be forcibly struck by similarities between the playwright and Desmond Fitzmaurice. Like the prototype, Desmond is an all-but forgotten writer living in a grand south Dublin terrace, with his second wife Anna. Into his life comes a London journalist, Caroline Wallace, sent on a whim by her literary editor to "revive interest" in Desmond's work. It's a vague brief, and nothing much comes of it.

What she undergoes instead is a forcible immersion in Desmond's personal life, what with a wife and ex-wife of dramatic disposition, the old man's reiterated regrets for the woman he should have married, and unsatisfactory offspring about the place. Caroline is precipitated into ancient spites and ructions. She finds herself complicit in Desmond's clandestine lunchtime meetings with his ex-wife Pamela (gin and tonic abounding), and has her nose rubbed in the tensions and complexities of his peculiar second marriage.

She is forced to listen to secret tape recordings describing episodes from a colourful past. Or is he constructing a fiction? She is ordered about and dragged into scenes that are none of her concern. Finally, she has had enough: "Fuck your books and plays, fuck this house... and all eccentric Irish people." It's a robust exit-line, and underscores Caroline's function in the novel: to act as the classic outsider, a point of stability, or sanity, in a volatile world. And Johnston is, once more, about the business of probing capricious family life, to which she brings her customary subtlety, sharpness and elliptical vigour.