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  • Redefining Family in Jennifer Johnston's Foolish Mortals
  • Mara Reisman (bio)

To date, Irish writer Jennifer Johnston (1930–) has published eighteen novels and written numerous stage and radio plays. She has won prizes such as the prestigious Whitbread Award, and her book Shadows on Our Skin (1977) was short-listed for the Booker Prize. In 2012, her literary achievements were recognized by the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards, which honored her with the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award. Beginning with her first novel, The Captains and the Kings (1972), Johnston has explored the effects of Irish nationalism and politics on individuals. In Foolish Mortals (2007), Johnston focuses on the issue of family at both a personal and political level in order to reveal and inspire transformations in domestic relationships and gender roles in twenty-first-century Ireland. This book signifies a change in Johnston's depiction of family relationships. These relationships may begin as difficult, as in her earlier work, but end in reconciliation. In addition, the family structure is redefined and reconfigured to include more types of families. Patricia Craig (2007) recognizes Johnston's perspicacity about contemporary Irish society and notes that "Part of the author's achievement here is to undermine … conventional ideas about family relations and activities." The questions that Ciara, the daughter in Foolish Mortals asks—"What, anyway, is a happy family?" (Johnston 2007, 148) [End Page 516] and "What's normal?" (172)—are among the central concerns of the text and part of the political discussions happening in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century Ireland. By addressing who constitutes a family, Foolish Mortals participates in the debates about homosexuality, marriage, divorce, and the Irish family that were in the foreground in the 1980s and were still taking place at the time of the book's publication. These changing attitudes about families and relationships can be seen in the characters' negotiations of structural changes to their families. The novel documents the shift from idealizing the nuclear family to recognizing and accepting a multiplicity of families including two gay couples, a divorced mother and her daughter, an older woman and her caregivers, and the large family these smaller units compose.

Memory is crucial to this renegotiation of relationships. This attention to the past, as many critics argue, is a prominent feature in Johnston's fiction.1 Yulia Pushkarevskaya contends: "Like many other Irish writers, Jennifer Johnston exhibits a particular fascination with memory. … However, rather than the past itself, it is the interpretation of the past … that assumes a particular significance in Johnston's oeuvre" (2007, 73). In keeping with Pushkarevskaya's observation, the characters in Foolish Mortals must not only uncover the past but also must reinterpret it. The novel offers a complex look at memory and shows that both actively dealing with the past as well as the seemingly contradictory need to forget some of it (in this case through amnesia or dementia) are necessary to facilitate positive changes to the Irish family structure.

Foolish Mortals also expands the focus on mother-daughter relationships to look at other familial relationships. Anne Fogarty (2002), Heather Ingman (2007), and Ann Owens Weekes (2000) argue that a shift takes place in the late 1980s and 1990s in relation to mother-daughter narratives: in earlier Irish novels, the daughter's story is foregrounded; in later Irish novels, the mother's story begins to be told. In this context, part of what differentiates Foolish Mortals is that Johnston gives both mother and daughter a voice, privileging neither of their stories. Other characters in the text also get a voice, which expands this subject position even further and heightens the novel's themes of tolerance, inclusion, and the need to understand disparate perspectives.

I begin with a brief discussion of some of the contemporary political battles about family and gay rights in Ireland. I then address how Johnston uses moments of fissure—breaks in memory, in the [End Page 517] privilege of the heteronormative family, in marital stability (infidelity, divorce, attempted murder), and in maternal expectations (wanting a career, not wanting children)—as opportunities for change to family structures, gender roles, and belief systems. In these moments, characters realize...


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pp. 516-542
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