A Sixpenny Song

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A Sixpenny Song, Jennifer Johnston, book reviewA man dies of a massive heart attack in his Dublin house. A villain for our modern times, Mr Ross is a rich man employed in the world of finance, who remained distant from his daughter Annie and blind to her passions throughout her childhood. After Annie’s mother died, he sent her away to boarding school in England. Upon her return, he tells her that she is not going to take up her place to study literature at Trinity College, but is instead joining him in the family firm to learn how to make money from money and realise the satisfaction of growing her own assets. After all, he just wants the best for her. Annie responds by fleeing to London, finding a flat in Notting Hill and a job in a bookshop.

Fast forward ten years from her escape and Annie receives a phone call from Mrs Number Two, telling her of said heart attack. The second Mrs Ross will get all the money, while Annie (who has apparently always been feckless with it, like her mother) will get the house. Given that this is a palatial house with ten acres of land, a swimming pool and staff, this is no bad deal, but Annie feels unsatisfied. Her visit to her childhood home has awoken a need to explore the past, in particular her late mother Jude. So far, so straightforward. But then Annie meets the odd job man Kevin, and her memories and ideas of Jude start to unravel at an alarming pace.

It is overstating things to call Jennifer Johnston’s latest offering, A Sixpenny Song, a novel. A small book of 194 pages in length – largely typed and generously spaced – it took barely two hours for me to read the whole thing, and is so short that there are no chapters within it. Brevity does not of course have to be a bad thing; it can make a text fast-paced, punchy and provocative. In this case, it just felt insubstantial, as if the narrative was flitting over the top of the plot on stepping stones rather than wading through it properly. There are only five characters, but each was thinly drawn and I finished the last page feeling I hadn’t known any of them at all.

There are themes of escape and remembrance throughout the book, and the title is taken from the children’s rhyme “sing a song of sixpence”, lines of which are repeated throughout the text. I think this was intended to add some emotional weight to the writing, but I just found it annoying and repetitive. Johnston may have won many awards from her previous books (including a Booker Prize shortlisting), but I found this particular example uninspiring and I’m not motivated to try any further examples of her work. I’m just not sure how this was a story worth telling.

Not recommended.

A Sixpenny Song by Jennifer Johnston
Published by Tinder Press, October 2013
With thanks to the publishers for sending me this review copy.

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Sixpenny Song, A
by Jennifer Johnston

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Written by collingwood21