Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 6, 2016

Shadowstory (2011), by Jennifer Johnston

ShadowstoryShadowstory is a deceptively simple story by Irish writer Jennifer Johnston, a favourite author of Kim from Reading Matters so I didn’t hesitate when I saw it at the library.  It’s a coming-of-age story that explores the nature of love – and the betrayals that complicate it.

Polly is born into a loving Anglo-Irish family, but she becomes an outsider in her own family after her father Greg is killed in WW2 and her mother Nonie remarries.   Polly sees this remarriage (and the unnecessary secrecy beforehand) as an act of betrayal and although she gets used to things even when she reaches her teens, she never recognises her stepfather Charlie as having any legitimate interest in her affairs.  While Polly becomes vaguely fond of her small step-siblings, they take away her mother’s attention and so only reinforce her sense of separateness.

It’s miles away from Dublin, at Kildarragh in County Donegal, that Polly feels at home.  She is very fond of her grandparents Beatrice and Geoffrey who live on a large property, large enough to have farm hands, a couple of domestic servants and a devoted cook called Sadie who seems to anticipate every need.  It is there that she develops a close bond with her uncle Sam, youngest of the brood and only five years older than she is.  It is Sam who tests the boundaries of love, burdening her with his secret ambitions to be part of the Communist Revolution in Cuba.  It is never made clear exactly what he does for the movement, only that he is doing some sort of preparatory work before going there, and that he won’t allow her to tell anyone about his plans or his whereabouts.

His disappearance is a kind of betrayal for the grandparents too.  They have already lost two children to the war in which Ireland was neutral: both Jassie their daughter and Greg volunteered, much to the disapproval of their pacifist father.  Both were killed in the last days of WW2 when their deaths were meaningless: Greg was shot by a sniper in a liberated village in France, and Jassie was killed by a flying bomb in London just a few weeks before the end of the war.  So for Sam to vanish out of their lives  is a cruel twist of fate for these recently bereaved parents.  There are no letters, phone calls or visits home, an unnatural silence even for an undergraduate supposed to be studying at Cambridge (which is where the notorious Cambridge Spy Ring was).

A planned marriage that should have brought joy into their lives is sabotaged by Geoffrey whose strident atheism can’t accommodate the prospect of his son Harry marrying a Roman Catholic.  Geoffrey feels betrayed by Harry’s repudiation of the principles of freedom and independence that he has taught his six children; and Harry feels betrayed by Katie’s loyalty to her mother’s religiosity.  This marriage is a last chance for the property to stay in the family, signalling the social and economic changes that came in the wake of the war.

Loyalty to a divisive religion crops up in the days before Vatican II in all sorts of ways.  In those days it was a sin to enter a non-Catholic church.  (A mortal sin, along with murder, rape and missing Church on Sunday, if I remember correctly, which meant you went to Hell if you died before confessing it).  In a small town Dr Whelan, Katie’s father probably had no choice but to tend to the family that had caused such angst in his life, but he can choose whether or not to attend a funeral in a Protestant church – and betray his wife as well as his religion if he does.  Interesting to see, too, that Grandma Beatrice by arranging the funeral of her atheist husband in a church chooses a kind of betrayal as well.  Would I be right in guessing that there weren’t non-religious alternatives in the 1950s?

The vexed question of the loyalties of the Anglo-Irish and their social status is a quiet sub-text throughout the novel.  Polly discovers that her father’s choice to enlist in a foreign war is a puzzle to some; there is political as well as personal significance in that her first trip out of the country is to Scotland, not England.  The English that the family speaks is middle-class British English while Sadie speaks with a light Irish brogue.  I winced at the easy dismissal of Sadie’s future when the property is sold up so that the remaining siblings can have the money they need: having repeated ‘what would we do without Sadie?’ like a mantra throughout the story, they are light-hearted about offloading her to her own family.  (Having spent her working life caring for this family, does she have superannuation?  a pension?)

As the grandparents age and the inevitable crises occur, they feel the loss of Sam all the more.  Everyone suspects Polly of knowing more than she says she does, and eventually she has to make a choice to try and bring Sam home or not.  That things don’t work out well for her is foreshadowed by reminders that she is narrating this story from much later in her life, but not all the loose ends are tidied up.  Fiction is messy just like life.

Johnston writes in clear, simple prose that evokes a way of life now gone.

Nowadays people don’t have six children, they don’t have time or money to spend on six children, they don’t have space to hide from them when it becomes necessary, which it does from time to time; to hide from their demands, their tears, their jokes, even their all-consuming love.  (p.1)

Polly has a shy innocence that seems unlikely now.  Sam’s affection for her suggests that taboos might be broken and although the idealism in his characterisation is ambiguous,  there is some suggestion that his forbidden love might also be a trigger for his absence from the family.

In places the sentimentality of the peacemaker grandmother was a bit overdone, but perhaps that’s just my lack of experience in having grandmothers.

Check out Kim’s review too.

PS The cover design is inane.

Author: Jennifer Johnston
Title: Shadowstory
Publisher: Headline (Hachette), 2011
ISBN: 9780755383474
Source: Kingston Library.

Available from Fishpond: Shadowstory


  1. Off topic, but everyone should have a grandmother or two because they can be wonderful.


    • I don’t doubt it. My son’s grandmothers were great ladies!


  2. If I had seen this book in the library I would have passed it by simply because of the cover. It seems to have little to do with the story or the themes.


    • Exactly. If they had to have a beheaded woman on the cover they could perhaps have had her in a velvet jacket and a kilt from her big Hogmany night out, but sheesh, she’s only 16 at the end of the book, and a naive 16 at that!


  3. The covers on Jennifer Johnston’s books always perplex me because they have nothing in common with the books themselves! Glad you enjoyed this, she’s a favourite of mine. Quietly persuasive.


    • These pathetic covers are becoming so common, it’s sheer laziness. If small publishers can afford decent covers, why can’t the big publishers selling authors who they know will generate good sales?

      Liked by 1 person

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