A Sixpenny Song is the first story I have read by Jennifer Johnston, although I do have a copy of The Illusionist lurking about somewhere. The chances that I will search it out and read it have increased considerably. In fewer than 200 pages this slim book lays out the inner life and grief of Annie, a young Irish woman living in London.
The death of her father forces Annie to return to her childhood home. It’s a place she hasn’t visited in ten years, and even before that it had stopped being home for her. Never particularly close to the reserved man that her father was, after her mother’s death the barriers between them increased. When her father remarried Annie was sent to boarding school in England and her desire to be at home was destroyed. Her longing to escape her environment and establish an independent life leads her to London. It’s not a glamorous lifestyle, but she has friends, a job in a bookshop, and a place to live. It suits her.
But, she is left the family home by her father, and even though she decides straight away that she will sell it, she still considers returning to Ireland and putting down roots there. One of the best things about the book is the way in which Jennifer Johnston makes you think about what ‘home’ really means. Where is home and what constitutes one’s home? Does being born somewhere make that your home, regardless of whether you are suited to the place or not? I enjoyed dwelling on the nature of home (and also seeing how many times I could use the word home in this paragraph!) and I know what it means to me, even if I do consider it to be in more than one place. But, above all it has to be a place where you are comfortable.
It’s obvious that Annie can never be comfortable in the big old house that’s now hers, but she tries to find a place for herself nearby. She does have happy memories of her mother, Jude, and she tries to fill in more details about her life. She’s incredibly insistent about this, demanding information of people: ‘I just want you to tell me what you know.’ She meets an old friend of Jude’s, Miss Dundas, and her nephew Kevin. The longer Annie stays in Ireland the more she learns about her mother. Her visit threatens to disrupt her memories; if Annie’s is not an ideal homecoming perhaps it can at least be cathartic. Memory is the second big theme in the book; Jude herself used the word ‘Remember’ as a constant refrain. Memories make up an important part of who we are, but we must not allow ourselves to become trapped by them.
With relatively few words Jennifer Johnston gave me a whole person. Annie is very real, and her pain and confusion are clear. I loved how she argues with herself as she tries to make decisions. She’s not perfect; she’s human. Johnston also draws out the strangeness of grief. As Annie approaches her old house she starts to cry, but not because she’s seen the house for the first time in years. She cries because she cannot recall the name of the ruin nearby; a little part of her childhood has slipped away from her. Perhaps it’s easier to lament that than the reality of now having lost both parents.
A Sixpenny Song is a beautiful book. It’s a simple story, as much as any story about the complexity of being a person and dealing with life can be, written with great skill. The only I thing I’m not keen on is the title. Although it has a relevance to the story it makes the book sound a bit old-fashioned, which belies the story inside.
A Sixpenny Song is published by Tinder Press and is available now in Hardback and eBook. The publisher sent me a copy as a lovely surprise, thank you. AND it’s their First Birthday today, so Happy Birthday Tinder Press!