“The Old Jest” by Jennifer Johnston – Book Review

“Death is an old jest but it comes new to everyone.” ~ Ivan Turgenev

A few years ago I read an astounding novel by Jennifer Johnston called “Shadows on our skin“, so I thought I HAD to add a novel by her to my “Reading Ireland month” selections.  I chose “The Old Jest” because it won the Whitbread Book Award in 1979.

Set in late summer 1920, “The Old Jest” is an atmospheric and nostalgic look at the life of Nancy Gulliver, who has just turned eighteen.  She never knew her father, and her mother died giving birth to her, so Nancy lives with her dear Aunt Mary and her ‘potty’ old grandfather who is suffering from dementia.

Nancy fancies herself in love with the much older Harry, a friend of the family. She is jealous that Harry and their neighbour, Maeve, seem to have eyes only for each other.

Nancy is exuberant, impetuous and impatient, all traits which belie her youth and naivety. She experiences dramatic emotional highs and lows, is introspective, and at times unwisely impulsive.

Nancy has just finished school and like most people of her age she is restless and eager to get on with her life.  She seems very aware of the vast potential her life could offer, and she enthusiastically starts a journal where she records her emotions and day to day trivia so she won’t forget.  To escape the adults, she spends much of her time down on the beach where her only companions are the seagulls…

She nimbly treads the railway sleepers to the beach…

It is in an old beach hut that she frequents that she meets a stranger.  Old (in her opinion) tired, and ill looking, she realizes he must be a soldier.  They come to be friends, conversing on the beach about books, life, and death. She smuggles him books to read and food from the kitchen.

Over time, Nancy agrees to deliver a message for her new friend. A friend who, as she had suspected, is an IRA foot soldier.  The results of her actions will prove life altering…

In my opinion, this novel is about youth, old age, and the chasm between the two.  The young view the chasm as vast, whilst the old view the chasm as a mere dimple of years. It is also about change, that which we create ourselves and that which is foisted upon us.

The old jest” puts a human face on Irish history.

Written simply about a simpler time – turned tumultuous, “The old jest” is a thoughtful and ageless novel written by a master of prose. 

I requested a digital copy of this novel from Open Road Integrated Media via NetGalley to be read and reviewed as one of my “Reading Ireland month” selections.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston is an award-winning novelist. She was educated at Trinity College, Dublin.  She has won a number of awards including the Costa Novel Award and the Whitbread Book Award, and a Lifetime Achievement from the Irish Book Awards. She has also been nominated for the 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.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical fiction, Literary fiction, NetGalley and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to “The Old Jest” by Jennifer Johnston – Book Review

  1. Pingback: #BookRecommendations with titles that start with the letter ‘O’ #GreatReads | Fictionophile

  2. Pingback: Begorrathon 2017: Go Raibh Maith Agaibh agus Slán! | The Fluff Is Raging

  3. Sandra says:

    I too had not heard of Jennifer Johnston before this. Thank you Fictionophile 🙂 There are so many wonderful Irish writers; it’s always good to discover another!


  4. Lovely review. Jennifer Johnston is incredibly underrated in my opinion


  5. Annie says:

    Loved what you said about this one, gonna add it to my TBR! Sounds like a great story!! Coming of age and historical ^^


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