Sexual abuse is a difficult subject for any novelist because it doesn’t lend itself to metaphor, it cannot be lyricised unless you’re Nabokov - and it often ends up, as stark documentary rather than the transformed stuff of fiction. This is not the first time Jennifer Johnston has tackled the subject - her 1991 novel, The Invisible Worm, centred on paternal incest - but she is identified so much with the Anglo-Irish tradition that her interest in,the theme of sexual betrayal is often overlooked, as is the fact that her literary terrain is more often detached suburbia than Big House.
Grace and Truth opens in such a suburb with talk of war, which, strangely, gives the impression that it’s going to be a period novel. Until you realise that this is the Iraqi war. Actor Sally has just finished an exhausting run as Pegeen Mike in The Playboy of the Western World and returns home to her beloved house in Goatstown and her husband, Charlie. But no sooner is she home than Charlie announces he’s leaving her. Through Sally’s subsequent unravelling, the reader learns one defining fact about her - she doesn’t know who her father is. It becomes clear that the highly prized home, the faltering marriage and even her successful career are compensations for that central absence. Besides her now dead mother, the only other family Sally has is her mother’s father, an elderly Church of Ireland bishop with whom there has been little or no contact. The second half of the novel is the story of that estrangement, told from her grandfather’s point of view.
Opting to divide a novel into two diamatic monologues is a risky venture. Just when the reader has become comfortable with the per- sona of Sally, brittle and fragmented as she may be, Johnston pulls you away and plunges you into the voice of Richard, Sally’s grandfather, into another history and another era. Furthermore, the bishop’s story has been written in the form of a letter to Sally - a memoir for her eyes only - so it is explicatory rather than dramatic. There is a distinct feeling of anti-climax when Johnston shifts her authorial attention from Sally, who fizzes and crackles and breaks in the wreckage of a marriage, to the bishop’s more ruminative and confessional recollections.
Since it seems painfully obvious from the start who Sally’s father is, this is not a novel driven by plot or suspense. Rather, Johnston has resorted to fracturing the novel form to mirror the kind of dysfunction that ensues from a history of incest. Here we have two narratives that never quite meet because the victim - Sally’s ill-understood mother – is missing. She remains a despairing and almost silent presence in the novel.
Johnston is at her linguistic best when conveying Sally’s fragile state of mind. She speaks in a kind of clever, but terse Morse code. At one stage, the roars and shouts of the children next door - consisting mainly of obscenities - break info the narrative, which is so disconcerting that the reader is not sure whether these are voices in Sally’s head. The same goes for the war commentaries on the television, which Sally watches obsessively, although their emphasis on child victims, their language of military euphemism and their parallels with Sally’s shipwrecked state, seem a little strained. Likewise, the tone of Sally’s voice sometimes seems too precociously morbid for a 35-year-old woman. Perhaps the point is that the secretive burden Sally has been carrying has weighed her down and made her old beyond her years, but there are times when it smacks of authorial device rather than emotional authenticity.
Johnston has always been a chronicler of the Irish Protestant experience and, in Grace and Truth, she conveys through the bishop’s narrative the respectable claustrophobia, the diminished life options and the poignant constraints of the clerical life among dwindling flocks. There are several comic turns in the book - Sally’s luvvie agent, David; her winebottle-toting next-door neighbour with the foulmouthed brood of teenagers, Mrs Murdoch, the doughty woman who “does” who appear as pragmatic emissaries puncturing the oppressive interior of Sally’s disintegration, and acting as an antidote to the desiccated atmosphere of the bishop’s mothy world.
The dynamics of performance pervade Grace and Truth . Sally’s life as an actor is informed by the secret kept from her by her mother, her isolation from a regular family life, the absence of a father. The bishop - who has had his ambitions to become an actor thwarted - becomes an impostor of a different kind, losing his faith but faithlessly continuing the performance of rites ‘and rituals. But his story, placed as it is, seems to act more as justifying testimony to “explain” Sally, while Sally’s life is placed in a kind of animated suspension. And it reduces her to a kind of and case history, rather than the flawed but fictionally rich character who should really have been allowed to own this book.
[Mary Morrissy is a novelist and short story writer. Her work will feature in The Faber Book of Irish Short Stories to be published in May 2005.]