Shadows on our Skin
By Jennifer Johnston
One of the most celebrated novels of the Troubles by one of Ireland’s most celebrated writers of prose.
He found himself on the road that runs out along the river towards the border. The city was behind him. The high warehouses were behind him and the bombed-out shops, ‘business as usual’ scrawled bravely on the doors. He passed the bus depot and the army barracks and the neat houses with their front gardens rimmed with raked flower beds. The wind blew aimless seagulls across the sky and the river moved, silver, towards the lough. Nothing could stop that. Then it was country, and high trees leant in winter loneliness against the tumbling walls of the big houses. Cattle searched in the fields for grass. The bare hills came closer with every step he took.
The whole world swung beneath them. The fortress city was below them, its grey walls and climbing houses quite plain to be seen, in the crook of the curling river which broadened then into the lough, beyond which the cliff of Benevenagh rose like a wall. Across Inishowen shadows moved constantly over the surface of Lough Swilly making it look as if it were alive with the creatures of different colours and shapes. Away beyond, divided from each other by brown hills Mulroy Bay and Sheephaven glittered and the great mountains of Errigal and Muckish rose above the rest, rising blue from the treeless boglands and rimming them along the Atlantic ocean, a silver line between the earth and sky. Storm clouds were banking up in the west, gray and white and sun-shot as if the sea was boiling up into the sky. Then back from the loughs and the sea the mountains subsided into hills again, and the bog became tilled winter fields neatly patterning the land, and trees waited and smoke blew bravely from the cottage chimneys, and the river Foyle again wound its way along its valley from Strabane to protect its own city. It was as if he owned the world.
‘Oh,’ was all he could say, but he needn’t have bothered as the wind pushed the exclamation back down his throat again.
So he walked around the walls in silence, and again and again, pushing his way against the wind, clutching from time to time protectively at his hair. The clouds gathered around Errigal, and as he watched, the distant mountain was quite hidden, as if it had never existed.
Excerpted from Shadows on Our Skin, Courtesy of Jennifer Johnston.
Derry in the 1970s: teenager Joe Logan is growing up in the teeth of the Troubles, having to cope with embittered parents, a brother who’s been away and come back with money and a gun in his pocket, harsh school teachers, and the constant awareness of the military presence in the background. Central to the story is the friendship that tentatively grows up between Joe and Kathleen, a young school-teacher who brings a fresh perspective to his familiar world.
The story is about the human side of the Troubles, how the abrasive climate of trouble harshens the manners of boys and young men, and how a different perspective can ameleriorate that.
“In Shadows on our Skin, she found a way to write about Ireland’s recent history through the voice of a young boy, Joe Logan, caught in the mire of his parents’ loveless marriage. Once more the story has a secret friendship at its core, but its particular achievement is to enable readers to feel deeply for each of its principal characters, however unlovely.”
Rachel Thackray-Jones, contemporarywriters.com
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