Not well known on this side of the Atlantic, the Irish writer Jennifer Johnston has a solid, and well- deserved, readership in Great Britain. The Christmas Tree is her tense, spare, highly-textured sixth novel. In it Johnston coils her language so tightly that she achieves the compression we usually associate with a cryptic, photographic sort of poetry. Her language intercepts, with Emily Dickinson's, a "certain Slant of light" that anatomizes landscape and memory.
The Christmas Tree unfolds in a series of vignettes, flashbacks, and waking dreams that define its dying narrator, Constance Keating. A solitary wanderer, Constance has recently returned to her family's home in Ireland from a trip to Italy. There she had an affair with Jacob Weinberg, a Polish Jew and stateless fellow-wanderer who has survived the Nazi concentration camps and possesses the same need as she to remember and memorialize. When Constance leaves Italy, she is pregnant. Her discovery that she is dying of leukemia occurs shortly after the birth of her daughter. She wishes to die at home, in the dark, on her own terms. "I don't want to have to be brave and grateful and helpless," she says. "I just want to die."
This novel concerns the process of that dying, the retreat into neutrality, the centering of the mind's life as it closes around Constance's ravaged, dwindling body. She obeys the rhythms of her body in its choreography of death, "a vast pattern of pain, like some formal dance, advancing and retreating slow turns, advance, bow, return. Pause. Then the rhythm starting again beating in the pit of your body, advance, retreat, turn slowly, turn, pause." She drinks whiskey to dull the pain momentarily, and describes its onset with a stunned, detached affection: "The animal inside me began its evening meal." Two refrains punctuate the narrator's dying--her mother's ghost appears to her often, interrupting their conversations to ask "It is Constance, isn't it?" and Constance frequently returns to Shakespeare's lines about dying, "Finish, good lady; the bright day is done and we are for the dark."
Darkness plays a large role in The Christmas Tree, as its protagonist fights to die in the shadows, out of the hospital glare of "shining sheets and lights and hands." The Christmas tree a friend installs for her glows with tiny blue electric lights that produce opalescent shadows in her room. This darkness--lest she "fade into the common light of day," as Wordsworth wrote--keeps all mawkishness and nostalgia from the narrative and, as blindness begets internal vision, here darkness stirs Constance to an unsentimental assessment of her past.
Johnston draws her characters with economy and precision. Jacob's tortured hands, broken by the Nazis, his palms "savaged by deep sad lines," serve as his emblem, representing honorable survival. Constance's irritating, self-absorbed sister Bibi bustles in and out of the sickroom bearing food that the invalid cannot eat. Bibi "was one of those women who always had to move things around in other people's kitchens. She couldn't believe that anyone might be anything other than delighted by her re-arrangements." Bridie May, the orphan girl who comes to nurse Constance when she grows too weak to leave her bed, sleeps with the lights on to avoid meeting the very ghosts Constance so welcomes. One of the novel's most powerful effects comes from Johnston's decision to let 16-year-old Bridie complete the narrative her employer has begun as it reaches its stately, moving end.
The plot of The Christmas Tree, thus recounted, might seem gloomy indeed. But the exquisite filigree- work of Johnston's descriptive language precludes the possibility of gloom. Under Ireland's "opal sky," Constance dies untranscendent, but in triumph. The starkness of this tale, and its narrator's blunt refusal to pity herself, give the novel its dazzling nobility. "I never had courage of any sort," Constance writes, "that has been the absurdity of my life." Her wry humor, in beautifully uncomfortable depictions of the stiff Keating family and an unforgettable adolescent ball ("Girls massed by the azaleas . . . bow ties slowly wilting like the flowers . . . Such fun. Such such boomy fun") buoy up a story that refuses to become either smarmy or grave. Johnston has designed, after Marianne Moore, "a place for the genuine," an imaginary garden with real toads in it.