“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.