The Old Jest: Jennifer Johnston

Jennifer Johnston’s short novel, The Old Jest, a coming of age tale, takes place over a number of days in 1920. The main focus is an 18-year-old girl named Nancy, and when the book opens it’s her birthday. On the cusp of adulthood, Nancy has finished school and plans to attend Trinity in the autumn. There’s not enough money in this faded Anglo-Irish gentry family to send her to Oxford university–plus there are rumblings of “a war with England.”

Nancy is an orphan. Her mother died some years earlier, and she never knew her father, a man who remains a mystery figure. She’s been brought up by her Aunt Mary who bears the burden of the household since her brother, Gabriel died at Ypres. Nancy’s grandfather, General Dwyer is “potty,” but these days we’d probably say he has Alzheimer’s. One of the biggest dramas in Nancy’s life is her crush on a young man named Harry who has his eyes on the bigger prize of the heiress Maeve.


Nancy’s diary entries make up some of the novel, so we see her confessional thoughts, and her desire that her grandfather die “before we become damaged by his decay.” She’s still a girl, and yet she’s supposed to act like an adult. Nancy chooses her moments to flip back and forth as if she can’t quite accept the responsibilities and polite behaviour of adulthood.

Outside of the safety and security of Nancy’s home, civil unrest occasionally washes up on their doorstep. There’s mention of the Black and Tans, but life in the household is mainly untouched by what goes on in the outside world until Nancy meets an IRA man who’s hiding out in an abandoned beach hut she frequents. He calls into question everything she’s been taught to believe:

“After all,” he said gently, “Your grandfather was a killer too, and no one makes sarcastic remarks at him for that. Not at all. They gave him medals and a pension, He wasn’t even killing to defend his own fatherland, indeed the very opposite. He was taking other people’s land away from them. Creating an Empire for a little old lady with a thing like a tea cosy on her head.”

There’s a sweetness hovering over the novel that partially comes from Nancy’s innocence and zest for life. (Some readers found Nancy annoying–I did not.) Some of the sweetness comes from the idea that we are glimpsing the last days of a particular lifestyle–although Nancy is initially unaware of the truth of the family’s circumstances.

I liked this novel, which has the feel of a well-fleshed out short story, for its bittersweet glimpse at Nancy’s life; by the time the book concludes, it’s easy to see that her world has irrevocably changed. Her innocence is gone, and so her childhood passes away, leaving her to face an uncertain adulthood.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Johnston Jennifer

12 responses to “The Old Jest: Jennifer Johnston

  1. This sounds very good too. I read a few of her novels and liked them very much. I think all of her novels are very short. I’ll be keeping this in mind for later. I still have one if two on my piles.

  2. Jonathan

    Are any of your recent reads coming off your TBR list?

  3. Like Caroline, I’ll keep this in mind for the future as it sounds like my kind of book – gentle and introspective.

  4. I really liked her Christmas Tree and I like the sound of this one too. I’ll keep it in mind.

  5. I tend to like stories that consists of diary entries. This style can get into a character’s head in a way that even conventional first – person narration cannot.

  6. She’s my favourite (living) author and this is a good example of her work, I think. I read it years ago now, but there are familiar themes in this one that run throughout much of her extensive back catalogue.

  7. I don’t know this writer, but I thought this sounded pretty interesting and I see from the comments that Caroline, Emma and Kimbofo all rate her. It has the merit of brevity so I suspect I’ll check it out, at least if I don’t like it it won’t have been a major commitment.

    • I’ve read most of her work, Max, all reviewed on my blog. Her earlier stuff is better than her later, IMHO.

      • Sorry for the late reply. Is there a particular book/review you’d point to as a good one to start with?

        • Hmmm… not sure. I read The Gingerbread Woman first, which made me want to read all her other stuff, so that might be a good starting point. The Christmas Tree is excellent, and I have a soft spot for Shadows on our Skin, which is not typical of her work (it’s about a little Catholic boy growing up during The Troubles, when most of her work is about young women from Anglo-ascendency backgrounds).

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