I’ve been a fan of Jennifer Johnston’s writing since I read her novel “Shadows on our skin” back in 2014. Since then I’ve tried to read one of her books every year.
This is a slow-paced, brilliantly written novel about a 50 year-old woman who has seen a lot of tragedy in her life. Helen Cuffe is solitary by choice. She lives on the West Coast of Ireland on a hillside overlooking the sea. She divides her time between her cottage, and the ‘studio/shed’ out back where she does her painting.
“I’m not lonely you know, just alone. I like to live on the edge of things.”
Accompanied only by ‘the cat’, she often spends her days in her dressing gown, smoking copiously. She does not name him – she calls him ‘cat’ and they have a love-hate relationship – though they seem to understand each other. Cat likes to sleep in Helen’s bed like a human being with his head on the pillow. Also, he likes to walk on the kitchen table and eat the butter out of the dish.
“Your cat? She nodded. “Well… really I’m his human being. You know what cats are like.”
On the same hillside as Helen’s cottage is a derelict railway station. Uninhabited, the building and the accompanying signal box and storage barn remain grim reminders of four men who died there.
Helen was once married. Her husband, Daniel Cuffe, a mathematics teacher, was shot in 1975 during ‘The troubles’. They had two children. Jack who thrived, and a little girl who died in infancy.
“It is a curious reflection on more than twenty years of marriage that all I remember with clarity was the ending of it.”
Peculiarly, Helen felt no sense of true loss when her husband was killed. Instead she felt a feeling of relief, of liberation. She acknowledges that she ‘should‘ feel guilty for feeling this way – instead she decided that there was no point in guilt. Instead, she moves from Derry to her hillside cottage on the West coast. She paints – she talks to herself.
“It’s strange how one person’s words sound so loud in an empty room. They resound, unlike a conversation which seems to become absorbed by the surrounding objects.”
Helen is not close to her son Jack. He is quite fond of his paternal grandmother and lives in Dublin with her whilst he attends Trinity College. A very clever young man, he visits his mother only sporadically, and seems disapproving of her lifestyle.
“I think there are so many things inside each of us that we don’t want to say, and that other people don’t want to hear.”
Helen’s story is told, by her, with memory flashbacks of the year that an Englishman bought the derelict railway station intending to bring the station back to life. Seriously injured during the ‘war’, Roger Hawthorne has only one arm, and one eye. He hires a local lad to help him ‘do up’ the station.
As the two solitary individuals Helen and Roger come to know one another, they fall in love.
“I don’t want to love anybody. I don’t want the burden of other people’s pain. My own is enough.”
Meanwhile, Jack has a very unsavory acquaintance in Dublin. He enlists Jack as a messenger for the ‘Movement’..
“I mourn the needless dead.”
This is a very melancholy novel. It is a testament to the superior writing skills of Jennifer Johnston that the reader, though forewarned that the story would end in tragedy, remains glued to the pages so that they can find out how it happened…
Helen is a character that I identified with. She was very ‘real’ to me and I don’t think I will forget her anytime soon.
Highly recommended, quality literary fiction written by a master of her craft.
I purchased a Kindle copy of this novel for my own reading entertainment.
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.