Truth or Fiction – Jennifer Johnston

I don’t know about all of you but I do think Sundays should be quite a restful day, maybe lots of reading in bed and pottering around? So instead of doing my book thoughts in order of what I have read, which I tend to do but might go out the window as at the moment I am reading some proofs for later in the year as well as dipping into Deborah Devonshire’s memoirs, I would discuss ‘Truth or Fiction’ by Jennifer Johnston as it could be an ideal Sunday read being initially quite gentle and easily read in a long morning in bed. And yes, I did say it’s initially a gentle read.

‘Truth or Fiction’ is really a novel that looks into just what the difference is between people’s own truths and their own fictions. Caroline Wallace is a journalist in her forties who thinks she is fairly happy in her living with her partner Herbert, an author, living in Notting Hill. That is until Herbert proposes, a scene which actually made me laugh out loud, and it brings all the things that have been bubbling under the surface of Catherine’s mind to the fore. Around the same time her editor decides to send her to Dublin to meet and interview the rather reclusive ageing author Desmond Fitzmaurice whose works seem to have been forgotten and are deserving of resurgence.

You might think ‘oh this is obvious Catherine is going to fall for Desmond and that’ll be that’ which I might possibly have thought was coming only having read Jennifer Johnston before (thanks to Kimbofo who is a Johnston connoisseur and chose ‘The Illusionist’ for the NTTVBG last year) and knowing that she is far to clever for that, and indeed far too deceptive too as you have the feeling something darker is set to come. As we read on Catherine gets more and more entangled in Desmond’s life from his current wife, ex-wife and the one that got away, to his relationships with his children and to something in his past he did and cannot quite get over.

This is where I come into some slight conflict with the book however. Whilst I liked the way Desmond was quite quirky, the fact there was more to him than met the eye and the fact that Johnston used him to look at the feelings behind old age and the modern family with divorces and estranged children. I didn’t ever feel like I got to grips with the depths of the other characters, his first wife Pamela being a slight stereotype of the woman who needed to be free, and the same with the current wife Anna being the woman who became more and more embittered as she aged. Catherine herself was another character that I never quite formed fully in my mind, but maybe that was all me?

I thought the first three quarters of the book were rather brilliant in that observational writing style where little happens but much is said and passed on to the reader, a style I am quite a fan of and always impressed by any author that can do it so well and Johnston certainly can. Yet suddenly it seemed Johnston went from a fifth gear into first and so much happened within a few pages, which of course I won’t give away, that I was thrown before suddenly it was the final page and that was that. I don’t believe an author has to tie everything up nicely; in fact I really like authors who leave the reader to do some work themselves, here however I felt a few strands had simply been dumped and it bothered me a little especially as I was left wondering what in the last 152 pages had been fiction and had been truth. Maybe though that is the idea? 7/10

It sounds a little bit like I am moaning about this book reading it back and honestly I am not. Though I came away wanting a longer book and wanting to understand more of the peripheral characters (so that I could make sense of the big character of Desmond at the forefront of it all) I did come away still wanting to read much more Johnston. I really like her prose; Johnston’s writing has an honesty, humour and darkness to it which works for me. The fact Johnston trusts you to, and possibly thinks you should, work at the novel is a quality I admire and I will definitely be picking up another of her books in due course.  

I wonder if my surprised enjoyment of ‘The Illusionist’ and its becoming such a hit with me created a certain level of expectation in this one to some degree. Have you ever had that experience where you have read and loved an author’s book and then read another one, liked it a lot, but expected more? Has anyone got any suggestions of where to turn for another Jennifer Johnston novel?

I got this book from the library where they seem to do a good line in Jennifer Johnston, I shall have to get another!

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3 Comments

Filed under Headline Review, Jennifer Johnston, Review

3 responses to “Truth or Fiction – Jennifer Johnston

  1. Uuuggh, you’ve whetted my appetite for this book . Is it very remiss of me not to have read anything by Jessica Johnson before?

    I’ve been intrigued for ages by the fine line that sometimes lies between truth and fiction or by the blurring between reality and the imagination. Paul Auster’s novel ‘Invisible’ deals with the latter and left me thinking about it long after I’d finished reading the book.

    An example of being a blown away by a novel, but left a tad disapointed by another by the same author for me was Barbara Kingsolver. I read ‘The Lacuna’ just after it won last year’s Orange Prize. I absolutely adored it and expected the same from ‘The Poisonwood Bible’. While it was an excellent read, after ‘The Lacuna’ it fell a little short of my anticipation. Kingsolver’s writing style develops and changes with every book she writes which has to be remembered here. For me she progressed from superb storyteller in ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ to literary poet in ‘The Lacuna’.

  2. Oops, sorry I meant Jennifer Johnston in the first paragraph not Jessica Johnson. Apologies for my brain storm.

  3. kimbofo

    Thanks for the link, Simon. I quite like being described as a “Jennifer Johnston connoisseur”.

    I think your review is a very fair one. This isn’t her best work by any stretch of the imagination. It’s essentially a novella — and the ending does feel rushed.

    There is some back story to the book though. Johnston comes from a theatrical family and her father was a famous playwright in Ireland. The character of Desmond is supposedly based on her father, which makes you wonder what it was she was trying to figure out about their relationship by writing about it in this way.

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