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THE OLD JEST by Jennifer Johnston



Pub Date: Feb. 8th, 1979
Publisher: Doubleday

Youth's bright vistas and commitments darkened by man's ancient atrocities, the flash of snakeskin in Paradise--in a superb new novel, Johnston (How Many Miles to Babylon, Shadows on Our Skin) sounds this venerable theme through the sensibilities of a lively young girl snared in the bloodroot violence of the Irish rebellion of the 1920s. Orphaned Nancy Gulliver is 18, and it's a birthday celebrated by loving friends and kin: her guardian, loving Aunt Mary; loyal housekeeper Bridle, grumbling with timeless grievances; Grandfather, a senile retired general, rambling and searching for distant past battlefields with his binoculars; and handsome friend Harry, all wrapped up, to Nancy's disgust, with similarly polished and obtuse neighbor Maeve. But trouble comes with Nancy's first grown-up year: the crumbling beach hut that she has scrubbed and furnished into a private hideaway is invaded by a middle-aged man whom Nancy will name ""Cassius"" for his lean and huntry look. Cassius is an IRA rebel on the run, returned to the old neighborhood where he long ago buried his identity. Nancy is fascinated, repelled, and then drawn to this man who has a gun, who has killed because he ""wants to see justice for everyone,"" who listens to her with what seems to be a growing affection. And Nancy's yearning to find her real father--that will-o'-the-wisp of whom her family cannot speak--becomes tangled in her love for Cassius. Nancy is briefly a courier, has a sunny afternoon outing with a young revolutionist, but finally becomes, unwittingly, a factor in Cassius' murder as the concluding terror envelops her and then curiously evaporates. (""Had Cassius in fact existed? No blood on the sands. No spent bullets""). Johnston is a wizard with landscape--and the scenery here is alive with steaming trains, a grating seacoast, sweeping sunlight and shadow, distant and foreshortened views of victims, pursuers, and the carefully uninvolved. And it all testifies to the miniaturization of man's hopes and plans, to the ""Old Jest. . . Death that comes to everyone."" A moving and artful novel.