“Shadows on our skin” by Jennifer Johnston – Book Review

Joe is an ‘old soul’.  He has the brain of a wise poet in the body of an Irish schoolboy.

Living during the height of the ‘troubles’ in Derry Ireland,  writing poetry was the only way Joe could escape his life of poverty and ever-present danger.   The second son of ‘Mam’, his hard-working, embittered, and chronically unhappy mother and ‘Daddy’ his unemployed, ill, and hard-drinking father, Joe lives in a family besot with misery and wretchedness.  His teacher belittles his poetic nature and has no time for his inattentiveness in class.   With constant bombings and British soldiers patrolling the streets Joe rushes home after school to prepare tea for his demanding and morose ‘Da’.   When his parents bicker and argue, he is sent to his room.  With nothing to do in his bedroom except ‘go to bed’, Joe watches the flickers of shadows coming from the fires of nearby bombings…

With such a dismal life, it is no wonder that Joe is captivated by a young teacher he meets one day on the way home from school.  Kathleen befriends Joe despite the age difference.  Both lonely, they recognize each other as kindred spirits.  She listens to him, admires his poetry and takes him on outings to places he has never been before such as Grianan.  Finally –  a ray of brightness in his otherwise dreary life!

Then one day, he returns home to find his older brother Brendan has returned home from away.   Brendan, his father’s favorite, is now the center of attention and takes over his bedroom, his bed and his daily routine.   Brendan and his Da go to the pub frequently, making Joe’s Mam fretful and even more unhappy.  We come to acknowledge that Brendan – like his Da before him – are IRA sympathizers and in fact Joe’s Dad was a ‘hero’ to the IRA’s cause.   When one day Brendan sees Joe with the lovely Kathleen, he insinuates himself into their relationship taking the last thing of Joe’s that he hold dear.  Brendan sees more and more of Kathleen, much to Joe’s chagrin.   Joe cannot understand this relationship as Kathleen has told him she is engaged to be married to a soldier…anonymous schoolboy walking the bombed-out streets of Derry.

When Joe’s house is raided one night by British soldiers, Joe finds a gun in Brendan’s empty bed.  He squirrels it away in his schoolbag and prevents Brendan and his family from certain imprisonment and possibly death.   When Brendan returns home, he expresses gratitude to Joe for his quick thinking, but Joe has no time for gratitude.  He is terribly angry at Brendan for placing him and the family in such danger.  This on top of all the other things that Joe despises about his older sibling make him blurt out what he knows about Kathleen’s engagement.   What follows is an outcome that will change Joe’s life forever…soldiers raiding an Irish house in Derry

Not exactly uplifting, this novel nevertheless was a read that will remain in my memory for a very long time.  Jennifer Johnston writes with great skill and empathy.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with this title which was originally released in 1977 and is now available in ebook format from Open Road Media.

Born in Dublin in 1930, Jennifer Johnston, an esteemed and award-winning Irish novelist currently lives in Derry, Ireland.  She studied at Trinity College, Dublin. She has won a number of awards, including the Whitbread Book Award for The Old Jest in 1979 and a Lifetime Achievement from the Irish Book Awards.“Shadows on our skin” was shortlisted for the 1977 Booker Prize.

About Fictionophile

Fiction reviewer ; Goodreads librarian. Retired library cataloger - more time to read! Loves books, gardening, and red wine. I have been a reviewer member of NetGalley since October 2013. I review titles offered by Edelweiss, and participate in blog tours with TLC Book Tours.
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10 Responses to “Shadows on our skin” by Jennifer Johnston – Book Review

  1. kimbofo says:

    What an excellent review! Thanks for letting me know about it. Jennifer Johnston is my favourite author and deserves a much wider audience than she has, so it’s great to see you helping to share the love!

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. Pingback: “The railway station man” by Jennifer Johnston (#readingireland18) | Fictionophile

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  5. Sandra says:

    Thank you for pointing me towards this book, Fictionophile. You had me hooked with your very first line!


  6. I do love Jennifer Johnston’s writing. She’s very underrated I think.


  7. jazzfeathers says:

    Well, this does sounds like a hard book to read. But then, those were hard times to live, so… no wonder.


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