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The Christmas Tree by Jennifer Johnston

December 29, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Christmas Tree by Jennifer Johnston (1981) French title: Un Noël blanc. Translated by Arlette Stroumza

Winter 1980. Constance Keating is 45 and dying. After hearing about her cancer, she left her flat and her job in London to come back to her childhood home in Dublin. Her parents are dead and she and her sister Bibi had decided to sell the house but now it will be Constance’s last home. It’s almost Christmas and Constance wants a Christmas tree to recreate the atmosphere of happier times.

I was always a great day when the Christmas tree was brought into the house. The fresh smell of pine needles in the winter room; the excitement of unwrapping the sparkling glass ornaments from the tissue paper in which they had been so carefully packed eleven months before; the warm waxy smell as the tin corkscrew candles flicker for the first time in their scalloped holders. Those early days of the tree were almost better than Christmas itself, which never came up to anyone’s expectations. I must pull myself together and get a tree, something manageable, something I can cope with on my own, something that will cause no anxiety to Bibi. The latter, of course, may not be possible. I will use electric lights, not candles. I will assure her of that.

Yes, I must get a tree.


All that is left

noel_blancConstance comes from a bourgeois family from Dublin. Her parents were a socialite couple, living separate lives but staying together. Constance doesn’t know if they loved each other or only tolerated each other. But in Ireland at the time, did they have another choice than staying married? Bibi followed their parents’ footsteps. She married well, popped four children and lives the bourgeois life, with all the narrow-mindedness you can imagine.

Constance has always been a free spirit. She refused to make the comfortable choice and marry Bill, who became a doctor. She decided to leave her Irish life behind and start fresh in London. She wanted to become a writer. It didn’t turn as well as she hoped but she stayed in London, took a job and never married. She remained faithful to her lust from freedom. Then she decided to have a baby and had a holiday fling to get pregnant. Her lover was Jacob Weinberg, a Jew from Poland who emigrated to Great Britain after WWII. Even her choice of lover is unconventional.

Her little girl is now nine months old and going to lose her mother. Constance writes to Jacob, to tell him about his daughter, about her upcoming death and asks him to come and get his daughter. Will the letter reach him on time? Will he come?

Constance and Bibi obviously don’t see life through the same lenses. Bibi does her duty to Constance. She takes care of her little girl, makes sure that she’s fed and well but it’s cold as a duty. She doesn’t understand Constance at all, why she doesn’t want to stay in a hospital and do treatments to prolong her life. But Constance doesn’t want to go through unnecessary painful treatments. She wants to let cancer run its course and die at home.

Bill, her former beau, comes regularly as a doctor and as a friend and accepted her decision. He would have liked for her to go to the hospital but he respects her decision. Bibi doesn’t let go and it might not be out of love. It is hard to figure out her feelings and her opinion. On the one hand, she’s upset that Constance doesn’t follow the rules and because she can’t pass on the problem to the doctors and nurses. It’s convenient. On the other hand, she refuses to acknowledge the truth: Constance is dying. Is it because losing her sister after losing her parents is too much to bear? Or is it only some obnoxious stubbornness to accept the evidence? She keeps telling Constance that she’ll get better.

We follow Constance’s last weeks in her parents’ home, a house that brings back childhood memories. She also feels the urge to write again. We learn more about her, her life and her family. Constance is a strong independent woman who chose to go against conventions to remain true to herself. She’s not one to compromise and let age and society eat at her resolve. She chose to have a child by herself, a scandal for her family. She even chose an improper lover to father her child, a Jew, a foreigner.

Constance never connected with her family. Bibi and Constance’s mindsets are too different. Their mother never understood why she left for London. Perhaps it questioned too much her own reasons to stay in an unsatisfactory marriage. And their father did his best to escape from family life, from spending time with the three females of his life. Would he have been different if he had had a son? Constance wonders.

I liked Constance for her courage. She remained true to herself, resisted peer pressure even if it came with costs. She had to emigrate, she was estranged from her family. She went against people’s expectations and lived with her decisions. It’s the mark of a true free spirit. To hell with propriety even if it can be selfish sometimes. She never wonders if her conduct exposed her mother and sister to gossip or if Bill was heartbroken when she left.

It should be a sad novel but it’s not. It has the musicality of a piano piece in Minor. I’ve read it in French, so I don’t have any other quote to share. The translation is smooth and it reflects Johnston’s prose. It’s like one of those films with flash backs in black and white family films showing a character’s past. We see vignettes of Constance as a girl, as a young woman and as Jacob’s lover. The narrative alternates between present and past, between first person narration and an omniscient narrator. It reflects Constance’s mind. She drifts to sleep. She medicates herself with alcohol and painkillers. She’s weak and the switch of point of views, the back and forth between the present and the past wonderfully create the illusion that we are with Constance, in her mind, in her room and in the last days of her life.

Highly recommended.

  1. December 29, 2016 at 12:51 pm

    Jennifer Johnston is one of the favourite authors of Kim from Reading Matters – but I don’t think I’ve read a review of this one. It does sound a bit gloomy, considering its title!


    • December 29, 2016 at 2:53 pm

      Thanks for the info, I’ll go and check Kim’s reviews. I’d like to read other books by her.
      The title is a lot cheerful than the book but the blurb was not deceptive, so I knew what to expect.


    • December 30, 2016 at 8:39 am

      Yes, I’m a massive fan and The Christmas Tree is one of her best. So nice to see Emma reviewing it here.


  2. December 29, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    Just about to buy it now!


    • December 29, 2016 at 2:54 pm

      Great. Come back and let me know what you think about it.


      • January 3, 2017 at 1:37 pm

        I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a rich thoughtful account of life and death. As you say, it’s not a depressing book. The narrator doesn’t dwell on her illness except with the lightest touch. She is a strong woman and has lived the life she wanted. I liked the structure of the book, the use of past and present tense, first and third person. Bill, Bibi and Bridie are all great characters. I couldn’t put it down. Thank you for introducing me to the book.


        • January 3, 2017 at 9:31 pm

          What a great comment to receive, one of the best reward for blogging. I’m happy you had a good time with The Christmas Tree. I think it’s good on every level: plot, characterization, narration. I enjoyed the changes in the narration too. You’re right, Bibi, Bill and Bridie are great characters.

          *spoiler alert*
          Poor Bill. He never really forgot Constance and I had the impression that his wife Angela never measured up to his first love. The poor woman, it must be awful to be married to a man who considers you as his second choice.

          What did you think of Bibi? Do you think she’s really insensitive or it’s all an armor? Sometimes she made me think that she’d do anything to get rid of Constance and that she only saw her as a problem. Sometimes I thought she genuinely cares.
          And at the same time, it must be hurtful to have your only sister taking all possible measures to be sure you won’t be the one to raise her daughter when she becomes an orphan. Writing to Jacob was the logical thing to do for the child. He’s his biological father and has a right to know. Making Bill promise to intervene if Bibi doesn’t let Jacob take his daughter with him is a different story.

          It’s an interesting book as far as relationships between siblings are concerned. I wonder how things would have been between Constance and Bibi if Constance hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer only a few months after their father’s death. I’m not sure the two sisters would have kept in touch after the death of their parents and the sale of their childhood home.

          It also says that despite distance, who do you turn to in case of trouble? Family…

          What’s your opinion?

          Liked by 1 person

          • January 4, 2017 at 9:52 pm

            I think Bill and Bridie are very satisfying characters. Bill is strong and dependable and we can almost feel the tweed of his jacket and and the lock of hair that doubtless falls boyishly over his troubed brow. And yes, we know he still loves Constance but we know he could never have kept up with her. And yes, anyone else was going to be second best. Poor old Angela! But Bill is there with Constance and that seems right. And with Bridie we see a new free life, Constance setting her loose into the world, to carry on what Constance started. Bibi I found the least interesting character, but I think that is what we’re meant to feel. After all, she did all the right things, staying at home, marrying a local boy and turning back to religion. So, in a way, boring. And by comparison Constance, for all her bumps and hiccups, had an exciting life. I feel rather sorry for Bibi. This is why I loved The Old Wives’ Tail by Arnold Bennett – because there you have two sisters, one who goes away and does wild and crazy things, and the other who stays behind. But the one who stays behind also has a full and interesting life, maybe not so glamorous but deep, emotional experiences.
            And you’re right – family relationships are interesting. We hang on to people in our families we would never normally keep up with in ordinary life. Perhaps that’s why they are so important.


            • January 5, 2017 at 2:12 pm

              Your description of Bill is exactly him. We can imagine him very well.

              I hadn’t thought about Bridie that way, but you’re right. Constance opened her cage and gave her the means to escape.

              Bibi made the choice to stay behind and conform and I wonder if she resents it. She’s been the responsible one, taking care of their parents, staying with her husband, taking care of the kids. She’s one of those women who got sacrificed on the altar of family and duty. She only exists as a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter. Never as a woman. I feel sorry for her.

              Liked by 1 person

  3. December 29, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    Like Lisa, I can recall Kim recommending/writing about Jennifer Johnston at various points. Funnily enough, your commentary reminded me of some of Colm Toibin’s novels, quietly powerful stories about the challenges we face in life.


    • December 29, 2016 at 2:56 pm

      I didn’t think about Toibin but I can see the analogy. I’ve only read Brooklyn. Constance is a lot stronger than Toibin’s heroin.

      It must be a difficult decision to make, to go for painful and uncertain treatments or to let go. And if the decision is “letting go”, I suppose it’s not easy for the family and friends to come to terms with it.


  4. December 29, 2016 at 5:32 pm

    Sounds a bit sad.
    It sounds as though, from your last comment, that Constance refuses some sort of treatment. I think it’s quite common for family members to have a difficult time with that (from things I’ve seen.)


    • December 30, 2016 at 12:41 am

      It is sad for Constance but her attitude is full of dignity.
      Yes she refuses all treatments except the painkillers. It’s not something I experience but I can imagine that it’s difficult for the family and friends.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. December 30, 2016 at 8:43 am

    So delighted to see you reviewing Jennifer Johnston, especially this title which I think is one of her best. I’ve read and reviewed 13 of her novels and am eking out the 4 or 5 of hers I haven’t read cos I don’t ever want to run out! All my reviews are here: https://readingmattersblog.com/category/author/jennifer-johnston-author-name/


    • December 31, 2016 at 11:13 pm

      I picked this one by chance. It was a lucky guess.
      Which other one would you recommend ?


      • January 1, 2017 at 10:53 am

        Her earlier stuff is excellent. Particular favourites include The Illusionist, The Gingerbread Woman, The Invisible Worm and Shadows on our Skin. The latter is not typical of her work, but it’s a magnificent read told from the perspective of a young boy’s life during The Troubles in Derry, NI.


        • January 1, 2017 at 3:41 pm

          Thanks for the recommendations, I’ll look them up. (poor TBR…)

          Liked by 1 person

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