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The snake in paradise

23 November 2002

12:00 AM

23 November 2002

12:00 AM

THIS IS NOT A NOVEL Jennifer Johnston

Review, pp.214, 14.99

The title is a slight puzzle, a tease. But quickly all becomes clear. Here is a book of painful but fictional recollections recounted by fictional novelist Imogen Bailey, which in turn become a real novel of both power and delicacy.

Imogen, a young woman of great sensibility, was traumatised by the loss of her beloved brother Johnny, who swam out to sea when Imogen was in her late teens, and never returned. Rendered speechless by this tragedy, Imogen was sent by her parents to a nursing home to recover from her breakdown. Thirty years after her brother’s death, looking back, remembering, she tries to sort out the truth from the imagined: the reality, then, from the reality as she now perceives it. A jumble of elements darken the story.


Imogen’s parents were both doctors. Her mother, Sylvia, was an unloving woman, her father kindly but distant. ‘Their indifference was so great I felt they were unaware of my presence as I stood or sat between them.’ The important pleasures of her childhood were her brother, Johnny, and Paradise, the Bailey holiday house by the sea in Co. Cork.

It was to Paradise that Bruno, a student teacher from Johnny’s school, was invited to stay. No lack of clues as to what is going to happen. They take the visitor sailing. ‘Bruno and Johnny talked softly to each other in a mixture of German and English as if I were not there. They laughed a lot and leaned towards each other


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