This Is Not a Novel: A Novel

This Is Not a Novel: A Novel

by Jennifer Johnston

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Grappling with the loss of her brother three decades prior, a woman digs into her family’s past and uncovers generations of betrayal, half-truths, and secrecy

Imogen’s brother, Johnny, disappeared thirty years ago, ostensibly the victim of a drowning accident—a story to which everyone but Imogen subscribes. Johnny was too good of a swimmer, she reasons, and his body was never found. Imogen alone believes that he is still alive. To get to the truth, she dives into her memory and her family’s history, all the way back to World War I–era Ireland and the long-buried events that forever changed them.
Lyrical, gripping, and compact, This Is Not a Novel is Imogen’s first-person account of her search. Portrayed through fragments of memory, letters, and poetry, the book is not only a retelling—it is an appeal to Johnny, wherever he is, to come back home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497646421
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 06/24/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 217
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Jennifer Johnston is a preeminent voice of contemporary Irish fiction. Her long list of accolades includes the Whitbread Literary Award for The Old Jest, the Evening Standard Award for Best First Novel for The Captains and the Kings, and a Man Booker Prize shortlist mention for Shadows on Our Skin. Her recent Foolish Mortals was shortlisted for the Irish Book of the Decade by the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. Johnston has authored seventeen novels and five plays. She lives outside Derry, Northern Ireland.

Read an Excerpt

This Is Not a Novel

A Novel

By Jennifer Johnston


Copyright © 2002 Jennifer Johnston
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-4642-1


This is not a novel.

I want to make that perfectly clear.

Normally when I set out to write a piece of fiction, I invent a setting, a landscape, a climate, a world, in fact, that has no reality outside the pages of the book, and into that world I insert my characters. I become the puppet master and I tweak and push these wretches, who, like us, have never asked to be born, through all sorts of contortions, until that merciful moment when I type those exultant words 'The End'.

A bit like God, really, who I'm sure had the best intentions when he created the world and then popped those two innocents into his Garden of Eden. Did he, at that moment, sit back, fold his hands and smile at his own handiwork? If so he must have got the shock of his life when that old serpent slithered on to the scene and blew his scenario sky high.

I am not sure into what category this piece of writing should fall.

I would like to think that rather than a scrappy memoir it might be a cri de coeur, a hopeful message sent out into the world, like a piece of paper in a bottle dropped into the sea; my hope being that my brother Johnny, somewhere in the world, I believe, may read it and may pick up the nearest telephone.

Having said that, may I return to the beginning?

The title.

The notion of this piece of writing had been in my mind for some time and was rather energetically seeking a way to get out, like a bird shut in a room, fluttering, flapping and shitting from time to time on the carpet. Then one day I wandered, somewhat aimlessly, into an exhibition of the work of René Magritte, a painter whose work, until then, I had seen mainly in reproduction. Postcard-sized jokes they'd always seemed to me and suddenly here I was being surprised and moved by the meticulous lunacy with which the artist viewed the world; in particular the bourgeois world, from which, I reluctantly have to admit, I come. These were far from light-hearted jokes: they were more like government health warnings, enjoy if you insist, but beware. Nothing here is what it seems to be.

Ceci n'est pas une pomme!

For several weeks I kept seeing in my mind's eye that apple on its little twig with the green leaf attached: as real, it seemed to me, and as tempting, as the apple in the Garden of Eden.

What would have happened, I wondered, if that serpent, at the last moment, just as Eve was about to take that fateful bite, had said softly into her ear, 'And by the way, Madame, ceci n'est pas une pomme'?

Would she have clobbered him with a fig leaf and thrown the apple away? In which case, would the world now be a very different place, filled with harmony and love, fraternal feelings everywhere, nobody eating apples or writing books more subversive than 'Noddy in Toyland'?

I have always amused myself with such fooleries: they inject little spurts of energy into the bloodstream; they are small mental fixes.

Anyway, having seen that picture and let the thought of it sit for a while in my mind I came to the conclusion that I should send my brother a message, and this seems to be the only way in which I may be able to manage to do it. He may not, of course, be interested in my conclusions, nor may he believe them; that is his privilege. At least I will have tried to let him know how much I love him and how for years I have longed to see him home again. At least, that is the message I intend to send, but who knows? Once the screen is up and the words start to patter out from under the fingers, nothing ever happens as you have planned it. Like in the Garden of Eden, the serpent may slither in and put paid to all my well-laid plans.

I have just sold my father's house in Lansdowne Road for a whacking amount of money. With the help of my solicitor, Mr Downey, Johnny's share has been put aside for him safely and, I hope, judiciously. Mr Downey thinks I am quite foolish to do this. He is convinced, as were both my parents, that Johnny is dead; that Johnny drowned on 17 September 1970. Nearly thirty years ago.

I was eighteen years two months and two days when my father came to see me in the nursing home and told me that Johnny was dead.


Lost at sea.

Johnny was two years seven months and three days older than I was, making him on that day round about twenty years and nine months, give or take a day or two. I had asked for a calendar on the day that I had started to speak again, and it hung by the window; when the wind blew, the pages would flicker and rustle together, as if for a few moments they were alive. I cancelled each day that passed with a neat black stroke, an acute accent, driving upwards from left to right. Seven strokes and then another seven and so on, until the evening came when I would turn the page and a whole new month would stretch ahead of me, the days undefiled.

The day my father came to tell me the news I had been over six months in the home. For the first month I had not spoken a word or laughed or even cried aloud. From time to time silent tears would wet my cheeks.

It was a beautiful sunny autumn evening and I was walking in the garden. It was charming, with neat beds and grassy walks through the trees. The leaves were turning from the tired green of late summer to gold and brown and orange. A few other patients, all much older than I, walked beneath the trees or sat in the benign evening sun and breathed the still warm air. I could hear their feet brushing from time to time through the leaves that had been blown early from the trees. There were a few roses remaining in the bed at the bottom of the garden and I was staring at the soft, crumpled petals when my nurse spoke just behind me. I was startled by her voice. I had, in my mind, been a long way away.

'Imogen,' she said. 'Your father ...'

I turned. She was dressed in blue that day, and my father stood behind her, pale and fretful-looking.

'... is here to ...'

He smiled a rapid smile in my direction and nodded his head.

'... see you. Imogen ...'

'Yes,' I said. 'Hello, Father.'

He nodded again in my direction. He looked awful, more than just fretful. He looked shattered. Maybe, I thought, with malice and probably a little madness – that, after all, was why I was there – Sylvia has self-destructed.

Sylvia was my mother.

'I will leave you together, Doctor.' The nurse was speaking to him. 'I will be above on the terrace if you feel you need me.'

She patted me on the shoulder, turned and walked away across the grass, her blue dress flipping from side to side as she moved. She wore white shoes, like nurses did in American films; a sartorial mistake, I have always thought.

My father came towards me. He put an arm around my shoulders and kissed the air beside my right cheek. 'Imogen.'

I said nothing. I had become very good at saying nothing.

'Let's sit down. Or are you cold?'

I shook my head.

He nodded towards an empty wooden seat and we walked across the grass, his arm still protectively and paternally across my shoulders.

When we had sat down he took a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his forehead, then he cleared his throat.

'How's Sylvia?' I asked politely.

He took my hand. 'Your mother's fine ... well ... fine ... under the ... yes ... under the ... Your mother's ...' His voice trailed away, blown on a little autumnal gust of wind. 'No. It's ... Johnny.'


'Yes. I ... we ... didn't know whether ... whether.'

'If there's something to tell, please, Father, tell me.' I dug my nails into his hand.


'He's dead.'

There was a very long silence. Somewhere across the grass a woman laughed. A loud and rather raucous laugh. I can hear it now, echoing down the years.


He almost whispered the word. I didn't believe that I had heard it right.

'He ...?'


'No.' I laughed. 'You're joking. No.'

He was hurting my hand now, so tight he was holding it. 'It is as I say, Imogen. Ten days ago. The seventeenth of this month.'

'How could Johnny drown?'

'I didn't want to tell you, but your mother and Dr Craig insisted. I thought wait.

Let us wait until she is stronger, more able to –'

'How could Johnny drown?'

'– cope.'

'Answer me, Father. How?'

'The ... the Gardai say that is what must have happened. Your mother saw him swimming out, round the point. She described it over and over again. Out. The sun shone on his flashing arms ... That was how she put it. She thought nothing of it. There were black stormclouds way out to sea, but she thought nothing of that either. She—'

'It doesn't matter what she saw. Johnny couldn't drown.'

'That's what I would have thought too, but I'm afraid, Imogen, that the truth has to be faced.'

'Was he ... was he ... did they find a ...?'

He let go of my hand and rubbed at his face. 'No. Not yet. No ... But, Imogen, the Gardai ...'

'I don't care about the Gardai. He couldn't drown. I know that. The police don't realise ...'

'Your mother ...'

'I don't care what Mother saw. She should know as well as I do that Johnny—'

'He swam out to sea and he never came back.'

I couldn't bear the conversation for another moment. I stood up. 'I think I would like to go inside now.' I turned away from him and walked across the shaved grass to the terrace, where the windows were still open to let the last of the sun in to warm the rooms and where the nurse in the blue dress was waiting for me.

'Imogen,' he called after me, and I paid no heed.


When I reached my room on the first floor, I took a pen from the table by my bed and, pressing hard on the ball point, I blackened out the date: 27 September, a beautiful autumn day, no longer existed.

As well as the house in Lansdowne Road we had a house in County Cork called Paradise.

It was an old stone house built about two hundred years ago that had been bought by my great-grandfather at the beginning of the twentieth century. It sat on the side of a hill overlooking a bay, with fields stretching below it down to the sea. A path through a little grove of trees led to a boathouse and a small jetty. It was from this jetty that Johnny was supposed to have swum out to sea.

We used to spend all our holidays in Paradise, as had my father and his father before him. I had always presumed that one day it would belong to Johnny and me, but not long after Johnny's disappearance my father sold the house and it is now a modest country-house hotel, and a haven, or so it says in the brochures, for lovers of water sports. They have changed the name of the house to Bealtaine, which means May in the Irish language. Don't ask me why they did this, I presume they felt that to call a hotel Paradise was asking for trouble. The word Bealtaine has a charm to it, even if you don't know what it means.

I live now in a neat house in Sandycove, in a road tipping down to the sea. I have to live near the sea; I don't want to be in it or on it, but I find it hard to live without the sound of it, the smell of it and the constant reflection of the sky, clouds, night, day, grey, blue, and I love the turbulence of storms.

My house is painted yellow, easy for taxi drivers: 'The yellow house, third gate up on the right.' The front garden is full of rose bushes. It was like that when I bought the house and I saw no reason to change it.

I took little from my father's house after he died, some books, the piano, which I play without much talent but it was my great-grandmother's Broadwood small grand, and nothing on earth would have persuaded me to sell it. I am lucky to have the room to house it. Also, and really the most important thing, was a large trunk full of papers, letters, diaries, press cuttings and old photographs, all pertaining to his family.

Sylvia was not a magpie like my father was. Her study was almost bare: only medical textbooks on the shelves, and on her desk neatly stacked medical journals and well-filed case notes. Nothing personal at all. No pictures of her parents or siblings, or of Johnny and myself as charming, smiling babies. She never kept postcards from friends on holiday or theatre programmes; no mementoes or memories hung around in her private rooms. It was as if she didn't want to know of the existence of yesterday.

Having blackened out 27 September on the calendar, I went and sat on my bed and waited for the nurse to come.

Johnny floated into my head, a trail of ruffled water behind him, his eyes shut against the sun. I sat on a rock and watched him, my feet dangling into the sea. As he floated past me he spoke. 'Hey ho, Imogen.'

'Hey ho, Johnny.'

'Is' gut, ja?'

'Is' gut, Johnny.'

I leaned down and scooped a handful of water and threw the glittering drops towards his body. He opened his eyes and turned over on to his stomach.

'Meine Schwester ist ein Schweinchen.'

He began to swim, with his strong crawl, out to sea, his head rolling sideways and down, sideways and down, his arms dazzling with drops as he swam directly along the path of the sun. My eyes hurt as I watched him.

'Johnny,' I called.

Onny came back the echo from the cliffs that sheltered the west side of the bay.

On ... ny.


O ... oo ... onny.

'Come back.'


Aaa ... ck.

Always the second echo was fractured, as if the word hitting the rocks had been broken into fragments.

Slowly he turned and swam back towards me. He climbed up the ladder on to the jetty and walked out on to the diving board. He clicked his fingers in my direction to make sure he had my attention and then dived, his body spinning and turning over and over before he sliced, hardly ruffling the water, into the sea.

'Bravo. Oh, bravo, Johnny.'

He leaped up through the water, one hand in the air waving triumphantly, then he swam towards me.

'Does that have a name? It's wonderful. I didn't know you could do that. You make it look so easy.'

He climbed on to the rock where I was sitting. Water ran from his hair; he shone in the sun.

'Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.'

'Who taught you? Daddy couldn't have taught you that.'

Johnny laughed. 'Not Daddy. He's a coward when it comes to diving. I worked that out ages ago. Have you noticed the way he tenses up the moment he starts to prepare a dive? Every bit of him gets rigid. No one can do a good dive like that.'

'Who, then?'

'One of the masters at school. He's a genius. It's like watching a bird flying when you watch him dive.'

'Does he have a name? Have I heard you speak about him before?'

'Bruno Schlegel. He's a student teacher, really. Just here for a year or two.'

'Teaching you all diving?'

'No, stupid. German. The diving is a bonus.' He stood up and held out his hand to me. 'Come on. I'll give you five and race you to the rock.' He pulled me to my feet. 'Starting now.' He began to count. 'One, two, three ...'

When it came to swimming, Johnny always used to win.

I sat on the bed.

The cover was pink and floral, matching the curtains, which trembled slightly in the breeze.

I kept my windows open when they would allow me.

There were bars on the outside of the windows.

Painted white.

I think they thought that made it all right.

White bars.

Johnny had never come to visit me in all the time that I had been there. Maybe I am wrong about that, maybe he had come in those weeks before I began to speak again. I have little recollection of that time: I only know that they filled me full of drugs and I moved in a haze of unknowing. They were trying to make me find my voice and at the same time lose the memory of what that voice wanted to say.

They were very kind. I do have to say that.

I was only a child, after all; a misguided, moderately demented child.

But that day, 27 September the day that I had blackened out on the calendar, I was eighteen years two months and two days. I was no longer a child.

They must all have been aware of that.

I became aware that the nurse had come in.

She crossed the room in her white shoes and closed down both windows. The calendar pages stopped rustling. She came over and stood beside me. I stared at the white shoes, slightly apart on the dusky pink carpet. All colour-coded the rooms, in calm pastel colours, guaranteed to soothe fevered brains.


Excerpted from This Is Not a Novel by Jennifer Johnston. Copyright © 2002 Jennifer Johnston. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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