Jennifer Johnston: The Gingerbread Woman (2000) A Novel by One of Ireland’s Finest Writers

On a rainy afternoon on Killiney Hill a young man walking, without his overcoat, happens upon a woman gazing out over Dublin bay, standing perilously close to the edge. From their testy encounter develops a remarkable friendship which will enable each to face afresh their very different, damaged pasts, and to look, however tentatively, towards the future.

Jennifer Johnston’s book The Gingerbread Woman is easily one of the best books I have read this year. I enjoyed every word of it.  Johnston, although said to be one of the finest Irish writers, wasn’t known to me before I read about her on Danielle‘s and Kim’s blog. I believe they both mentioned other novels. I felt like starting with this one as I liked the description on the cover.

35 year-old Clara recovers from an operation and a broken heart while Laurence tries to come to terms with his grief. He has recently lost his wife and his little daughter. Clara and Laurence meet on a walk and later bump into each other again in a pub. Clara notices how lonely and sad Laurence is and asks him to stay at her house instead of the hotel. The dog Pansy is especially grateful as she had to sleep in the car. The story of these two wounded people is told in alternating points of view. Clara, who works for newspapers and teaches Irish literature at small universities, tries to write a novel. During the course of the book she writes parts of the novel that reveal her tragic love story. Laurence reveals his story in telling it to the people in the novel and in flashbacks. Clara’s mother and her doctor are interesting characters as well. The relationships she has with both of them, as with everybody actually, are far from the ordinary. She is quite an original character and I was surprised that her tragic love story was so banal. The reader guesses what is wrong with her lover right away but clever and hardheaded Clara is tragically clueless. (Hard to imagine but I have seen this sort of story happen many times –  as said, it is quite banal – and, believe me, no amount of good advice did beware the women from a painful disappointment).

Clara is very weak and ill, post-operative as she says. We wonder all through the book what health problem she had, even more so when the doctor mentions that the operation is linked to a sexual encounter. Big question mark on my side.

What is really special about this book is the feeling of immediacy. Clara is a character who doesn’t spare anyone. She always seems to say the truth. The conversations with her are deep and meaningful. If people were really talking like this, if they were this real,  how wonderful this would be.

Johnston is known for tackling Irish issues. This book is no exception. I found it interesting to read an inside point of view. We all have our opinions of Ireland, the IRA, the North and the South but probably we all know shit. We don’t know how deep the rift is between the two parts of this divided country.

Jennifer Johnston is truly an outstanding writer and I will certainly read many more of her books. I already have How Many Miles to Babylon, Two Moons and Fool’s Sanctuary on my TBR pile.

Jennifer Johnston has written some 15 novels. Which ones did you read or are you planning to read?