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.