“Surprisingly intense” – Source by Rosemary Johnston

IMG_3Oct2021at182626This short novella packs an awful lot into its sixty pages. Identity, love, loss, resentment and coming to terms with demons of the past. For such a brief work the characters are extremely well portrayed and the reader really gets to know and understand them, flawed as they are in their individual ways.

Kate and her daughter, Lavinia, return to Ireland, to Kate’s home town, to clear the house and sell the farm where she grew up. The house has stood vacant for some time following her mother’s death and returning unleashes a slew of unpleasant memories and resentment for Kate. Lavinia is a typical fashion-conscious city-raised teenager who is appalled at the conditions her grandparents lived in and the fact that there is no wi-fi in the house. She takes herself off to the local hotel from where she is able to email her father and watch streamed movies on her iPad.

Going through her parents’ possessions Kate finds no attachment to the objects of her past until she comes across her father’s dictionary. She recalls her Dad’s fondness for language and words — particularly Viking words — with their origins in the old Norse language. Words like window, freckle, bairn, anger, birth, guest, haunt, snare. Here she is with the rediscovered dictionary:

“Kate smelt the book. It was musty, as if all the old words had gone off a bit, unused and trapped inside. ‘Let us out!’ they might well whisper. And the words in it might well be the key to unlocking the past. But the odour the trapped words gave off seemed to hold within it an accusation that it was the past itself that was tainted, no matter which words were used to describe it.”

Later Kate reflects:

“There were many words that had come into use since her father’s dictionary had been printed. Words to do with new inventions or concepts, but not just those. As the world changed, the words to describe it changed. Language was endlessly renewing itself. Many were adapted from words already in existence. As if language was a cuckoo using another bird’s nest.”

Her father had always been considered an outsider in the village. Not being from around the place in which you lived had mattered back then. While Kate’s mother single-handedly ran the farm that had been in her family for generations Kate and her father stayed indoors reading poetry and collecting Viking words. Rosemary Johnston writes:

“Kate had been inward-looking and her mother’s thoughts were always of the outside, but that had gradually shifted and later Kate’s view turned outwards and her mother’s inwards. The dictionary had fuelled Kate’s inner life and was her way of going to the root of all things, but later it was also her future and her means of escape when her mother became as dark as peat.”

Finding an old school notebook Kate begins to write her own manifesto on words which she plans to use in her work teaching English to refugees. She asks herself whether words can help us understand ourselves. Johnston writes:

“She thought about how, when the words migrated, they changed, like people do. Some became ore resilient, more powerful, some are lost by the wayside. Those Viking words were all carried around by humans. But words were also carriers, they were vessels, carrying our intentions, our needs and desires. Humankind has an influence on words, but words also have the power to influence us.”

As the story unfolds the reader learns the reasons for Kate’s resentment towards her mother. She also reconnects with an old boyfriend. Brian still struggles with losing his brother, Kieran, at sea when they were teenagers. It is their shared loneliness and mutual losses which draw Kate and Brian together and, while they realise they still have feelings for one other, they also know they are unlikely to act on them.

Any Cop?: Surprisingly intense and thought-provoking. It’s well worth seeking out this little gem if you can.

Carola Huttmann

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