Jennifer Johnston, Irish Writer

“Fool’s Sanctuary” by Jennifer Johnston



Jennifer Johnston is a writer whom I much admire. I’ve read five of her novels. She has the simple dramatic flair and a precision with language that make her novels completely engaging. Her novels tend to be short, to the human point, and she is very strong on dialogue. As I was researching, I found out that Jennifer Johnston’s father was an Irish playwright named Denis Johnston, and her mother was an actress. This novel “Fool’s Sanctuary” would have made an excellent play or, even better, a movie. Maybe someone will still have the good sense to make this book into a movie. The story of this novel is so well framed that the events seem almost inevitable, yet you the reader have such empathy for all of the main characters that you need to be there to the end. Jennifer Johnston is one of the few novelists today whose novels can stand up to comparisons with the very best playwrights.

Fool’s Sanctuary was written in 1987. Perhaps because Jennifer Johnston had already written one much-honored novel, The Old Jest”, about the Irish war for independence, this novel “Fool’s Sanctuary” did not get the recognition it deserved. “Fool’s Sanctuary” is a superb work by a major writer.

I strongly recommend “Fool’s Sanctuary” as well as the other novels of Jennifer Johnston I’ve read. But don’t take just my word for it, for there is a writer in Ireland who was deeply influenced by Jennifer Johnston. That writer is Sebastian Barry. In his introduction to Johnston’s “The Captains and Kings” collection, Barry wrote of “the special shock of reading an original writer for the first time”. Like Johnston, Barry has also written several excellent novels that deal with Irish history. In his novel “The Secret Scripture” he uses a device similar to Johnston’s device in “Fool’s Sanctuary” where the narrator is an old woman in an institution who relates the story of her youth, more an homage than an imitation.

Perhaps the most enthusiastic reviewer on the Interrnet for the works of Jennifer Johnston is Kimbofo at Reading Matters. You can find links to all eight of Kimbofo’s reviews of Jennifer Johnston novels at    Reading Matters – Favorite Authors

It includes a link to Kimbofo’s review of Jennifer Johnston’s newest novel “Truth or Fiction” which was published in November, 2009.


8 responses to this post.

  1. Another one to add to my wishlist!
    Lisa Hill (


  2. Hi Lisa,
    Yes, so many books, so little time, but Jennifer Johnston is in a league of her own, and her books read quickly.


  3. Well, this is one Johnston book I haven’t read… although it’s in the queue somewhere… so I will look forward to reading it seeing as you enjoyed it so much.

    Thanks so much for flagging up my love of Johnston’s work. I really do think she is one of the most under-appreciated living Irish writers, and if I can, in some small way, introduce her genius to others then my job will be done!

    Oh, and before I forget, apparently the main cantankerous character in her latest novel “Truth or Fiction” is based on her father.


    • Hi, I think Jennifer Johnston’s father being a playwright is significant, because she handles dialogue so well in her novels she very well could have been a playwright herself. She probably preferred working on her own without all the people you need to please in order to be a playwright. I might get one of the movies that have been made from her work.


  4. I have just read this novel and I have been directed to your blog via Kimbofo. I enjoyed your review and and like you it just blew me away and I am now on a desperate scramble to track down all of her work. I have Shadows On the Skin, The Illusionist and The Gingerbread Woman lined up to read soon. A most underappreciated author and so glad to have discovered her work.


    • Jenny,
      Thanks for stopping by. I’ve really enjoyed all five novels I’ve read by Jennifer Johnston and do believe she is one of the best dialogue writers out there. The first book I read by Johnston was “The Invisible Worm”, and I thought it was spectacularly good. That was more than ten years ago, and since then I”ve kept an eye out for her. I have not been disappointed by any of her books yet, and I do think “Fool’s Sanctuary” at least maintains the high standard of her other books.
      I visited your site, Library Thing, am a long way from figuring out exactly how it works, but did rate Fool’s Sanctuary there


  5. Posted by Madeleine E. M. Coyle on March 7, 2011 at 9:18 AM

    Jennifer Johnston’s work has a special quality: her use of language is wonderful


  6. Hi Madeleine,
    Yes there is a special quality to Jennifer Johnston’s writing that makes her books unique and always a delight.


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