Johnston, who has sent us some of the finest recent fiction on growing-up-in-violent-Ireland (Shadows on Our Skin, The Old Jest), is up to something quite different here--in a small, spare novel that uses perfect detail and disarming, plain-edged prose to transcend its rather familiar outline. Constance Keating, 45, is dying of leukemia; she got the bad news in London, just after giving birth to a baby girl (result of virgin Constance's. first affair, in Italy, with Polish/Jewish/British writer Jacob Weinberg); so now she has come back to the deserted family house in Dublin--turning baby Anna over to sister Bibi but refusing to go to the hospital for treatment. And, as death and Christmas approach more or less together, narrator Constance--visited by Bibi and doctor/old-flame Bill, tended by convent-reared orphan Bridie--remembers (in the third person) pieces of her taut, empty life: her adolescent refusal to join Bibi in the upper-middle-class social swing (all those ""old, old young men""); her rejection of Bill's proposal (""Me heap big trouble,"" she advised him); dropping-out of university, leaving for London with literary ambitions--but quickly settling for a risk-less, pain-less life as an unattached ad-agency copywriter; and then the brief encounter with older, earthy Jacob, a Holocaust survivor with broken hands, a big nose, and unpossessive tenderness. All this, then--the flashbacks-while-dying, the desire to have a strong, honest death after a weak, fretful life--is far from original. But Johnston invests every predictable moment here with fresh, true, crisp coloration: the relationship with young servant Bridle (who's timidly reveling in her first days out of the convent) is especially irresistible--as is Constance's series of confrontations with the ghost of her disapproving mother. . . who hasn't changed a bit ""with several years of death."" And, when Constance very quietly dies and Bridle takes over the story--Jacob Weinberg's appearance at Constance's deathbed, his claiming of the baby and Bridie--a sad, pinched tale strangely blossoms into something warm and joyous. From start to finish: an impeccable piece of realistic fiction, with routine material transcended by art at its most clear-eyed and unpretentious.