||Playing Out a Familial Mystery
by Beatriz Hausner
Grace and Truth, the 14th novel of Ireland's Jennifer Johnston, is a welcome presence in Canada. The story opens with the scene of the breakup of Sally and her husband Charlie's marriage. The explosive introduction prepares the stage-literally, since Sally is an actress-for the start of the protagonist's quest to find the deeper reasons for the failure of her marriage. Beyond the initial hurdles, other mysteries add themselves to Sally's search, including her mother's inexplicable suicide and her own inability to probe her familial past. It is this past, Sally suspects, that could unearth the secret to her own identity as a person and, importantly, as a performing artist. Sally suspects she is inherently flawed, a defect perhaps confirmed by her mother's suicide, but which also may be rooted in an unsolved family mystery, chiefly involving the identity of her father.
By opening the novel in such a charged manner, Jennifer Johnston effectively introduces the psychological components that drive the protagonist to question her life in the present and to examine well buried memories of her childhood. Sally's early life was spent in Dublin, in the care of a mother who not only refused to reveal her father's identity, but who kept her daughter strangely isolated from others, turning her into an outsider vis a vis her peers and the larger community. Being on the outside both as a child and as a teenager enabled Sally to develop unparalleled powers of observation of others' gestures and means of self-expression, essential tools for an actor to excel at her craft.
Sally's marital crisis with its consequent exploration of her own identity, coincides with a serious artistic crisis. At the story's outset, Sally is faced with her own physical and emotional exhaustion, which she assumes is due to overwork caused by consecutive theatrical productions and a long European tour from which she has just returned. It is to this fatigue that she attributes her reluctance to accept what would, by all standards, be considered a fantastic career move: her agent has worked out a deal that would allow her to play Pegeen Mike in a full-run Broadway production of "Playboy of the Western World", with living expenses paid, the promise of a competitive salary, and the possibility of a movie contract.
Sally delays accepting the deal and instead embarks on a cautious quest to connect with her late mother's father, a retired Church of Ireland bishop and the only remaining male relative in her life. Tentatively, she reaches out, trying to overlook the old man's forbidding demeanor, sensing that his inability to engage emotionally the circumstances surrounding his daughter's death and, by extension, his granddaughter's life, may shed light on her own dysfunction.
Personal and artistic crises are not new subjects in literature. As far back as Don Quijote, considered to be the first modern work of fiction precisely because of Cervantes's exploration of his character's interior life, novelists have dug into their own psyches to try and find reasons for their motivations. This self-examination coincides with a larger effort to understand personal identity within family and society. What makes Johnston's novel successful is her clever way of merging the main character's search for her origins, for who she is, with the larger problem of establishing why she is the person she has become.
As the novel progresses, the reader slowly uncovers why a proven artist like Sally is unable to take the next step to full critical recognition and professional fame. Johnston subtly uses the small cast of characters that inhabit Grace and Truth to deflect and reflect Sally's crisis. Sally herself, as an actress, and not unlike a writer, excels in experiencing the world vicariously through her art. In this regard, Johnston is wise to equip her main character with the talent for listening and assimilating the cadences of speech, the voice tone of people she encounters, and for applying these observations to her own craft on the stage. Johnston also makes it clear that Sally's personal and artistic crisis may be largely a product of the distance performance art interposes between her acting self and the real world. The actor's craft is not too far removed from what fiction writers do, making Sally all the more suited to be the narrator of her own story; she filters not just her own emotions as she uncovers her family's secrets, but the emotions of the other characters as they weave in and out of the narrative.
The interplay of description and dialogue is masterfully carried out throughout the novel. The reader quickly absorbs the hopelessness of Charlie's position: he makes his announcement that he will leave Sally for someone else gently, hesitantly, hoping for a tacit understanding between them. He is prepared to leave her gradually, in stages if need be. But Sally turns the table on Charlie, surprising him with her anger, and making it crystal clear that his departure must be immediate and final. In two or three pages of dialogue, minimalist and staccato, Johnston establishes Charlie's weakness and, by way of Sally's angry and assured response to his decision, her strength. The scene of confrontation is wonderfully enhanced by Johnston's deft rendering of the immediate environment: a cup of coffee hurled by Sally at Charlie shatters against the floor, stains his shoes, while the house pipes creak and rattle-echoing and amplifying Sally's anger and Charlie's crippling ambivalence.
The language in Grace and Truth is at once expressive and succinct, and is put to good use in delineating the novel's small cast of supporting characters. Sally's housekeeper, for example, is a woman whose alternating chattiness and silences capture the cadence of Irish working-class speech. The dialogue between Sally and her neighbour, Jenny, on the other hand, is punctuated by Jenny's futile efforts to steer her hyperactive children toward various tasks around the house. Sally's agent, David, is frenetic and phony, qualities ably conveyed by his phone conversations, which are always interrupted by other incoming calls, and his constant restlessness as he rushes from airport to house, to restaurant. But most impressive is Johnston's portrayal of Sally's grandfather. As the barriers between him and Sally begin to break down, his coldness is exposed as a mere mask, or as it turns out, a screen which is key to the novel's entire premise of secrets to be uncovered.
The bishop gives his granddaughter a memoir he has written. Its contents shed light on everything that has happened to Sally's family. This section of the narrative works as a story within a story, distinct in voice and style from the rest, but complementing the novel's other parts. The resolution it offers sets Grace and Truth positively apart from other novels of this kind.
The only weakness in Grace and Truth is the author's frequent insertion of television coverage of the Gulf War in the background. Instead of working as a metaphor for Sally's inner conflict, it comes through as noise, more conventional padding than meaningful content. In every other way, however, Grace and Truth should be heralded as an important example of contemporary Irish fiction.