Shadowstory, by Jennifer Johnston

Article published on March 3, 2012.

Shadowstory is set in the Second World War. After her father dies, Polly’s mother, Nonie, remarries and has two children, and Polly grows increasingly isolated from this new family unit. Her mother, while not forbidding her, actively tries to discourage her spending time at Kildarragh with her beloved grandparents; her late father’s parents. She begins to witness the family growing apart due to domestic and ideological tensions. Her uncle, Sam, leaves Cambridge, unbeknownst to his parents, and heads for communist Cuba, armed only with youthful idealism and a certain naiveté of the times, and making Polly promise to keep his location secret. Her uncle Harry gets engaged to a catholic, Katie, until Polly’s protestant, ‘domestic tyrant’ grandfather causes a rift between the families. The relationship between Sam and Polly develops into a kind of latent sexual attraction. This is never resolved, however, as Sam does not return from Cuba after a last visit to the house for his father’s funeral. Shadowstory aims to be a coming of age novel, which ends with the death of Polly’s grandparent’s and thus the symbolic death of her halcyon childhood at Kildarragh.

The story is told by Polly (or ‘Baby’, as she is known, quite appropriately) and, as a result, sounds childish and rather twee. The protagonist herself is overly sentimental and subservient. She stays out of arguments and has few opinions of her own. Any objection she makes to the course of events is confined to the pout of a petulant adolescent. Johnson’s prose is dripping with saccharine, and seems overly juvenile also, perhaps in an attempt to remain true the protagonist, though she is writing ‘many years’ later. The intention may have been to make the language ‘authentic’ but it serves to accentuate the artificiality of the characters. The depiction of the central relationship; that of Polly and Sam, is frustratingly vague. Sam signs a letter to her as ‘uncle and lover’, and she professes to love him, but the extent of her attraction is left deliberately unclear. At times it seems as though this sheltered, adolescent girl is simply being swept up in the flattering attentions of an older man. She doesn’t seem to know anyone outside her family circle, so it is perhaps natural for her to focus on him, especially with only a five-year age gap. At other times she seems somewhat obsessed with him and the attraction therefore reciprocated. The relationship isn’t explored enough to give us any real clue as to the nature of the relationship. The intention, seemingly, is to portray an illicit romance; though it fails to come across as anything other than contrived and, frankly, creepy.

The characters are all quite mono-dimensional, which doesn’t help the matter, and not much really happens other than Polly grows up and her grandparents die. The childish prose is irritating and a little clunky at the times. If this is supposed to be the story of a young girl’s sexual awakening and journey towards womanhood, it falls short. We are witness only to the words the characters say, not anything of their inner life, and even Polly doesn’t have much going on beneath the surface other than blind devotion to Sam and to her grandparents. Her relationship with her mother is not developed; they are distant and remain so. She seems to pop up in the narrative to refuse one of Polly’s wishes then disappears again like a genie into a lamp. We don’t know what she thought of her daughter, indeed we don’t know how any of the characters really feel about anything at all. Perhaps this is intended to represent a child’s view of the world; however a novel such as this relies on a strong, developed central character. Polly is neither. She is whiny, inert, and fades to the background in even her own story.

Another thing which irked me was the character of the maid Sadie, who is depicted as a completely devoted, servile figure, never happier than when making a cup of tea for the family. Their concerns are her concerns. There is nothing more to her personality and, apparently, there doesn’t need to be. It is a very upper class, old fashioned view of the world; the servants to be serving their masters, everything in its proper place. The issues Johnson tries to address; religion, the validity of war, and family values, are just sort of ‘plonked’ into the narrative, as though this constitutes an exploration of these themes. It really doesn’t. Shadowstory is an appropriate title; what we have here is faceless characters, vague sentiments, and a cloudy conclusion. There might be a real story, and real people, buried in here somewhere. Sadly, we’ll never know.

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