“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.
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.