‘Source’ by Rosemary Johnston has depth and layers that give you a feeling you have read a much longer story than one consisting of fifty-seven pages. It is set in an Irish Atlantic coastal village and focuses on the central character of Kate, ostensibly returning to her childhood home in Connemara with her daughter to clear out her recently deceased mothers farmhouse, forced to confront the darkness and melancholy of her formative years and the anguish caused by her parents tumultuous relationship. It also covers the tragic existence and fragile familial relationships of other local characters from the village, most notably her teenage ‘friend’ Brian.
The tone for the story is set in the foreboding descriptions of the land and sea surrounding the location of the story. In our minds eye we can often visualise idyllic summer settings of coral blue waves crashing against golden sands, yet here we are presented with imagery such as, ‘A landscape of strewn boulders’, ‘In darkness by the middle of an April day’ and ‘The grey, choppy sea, islets sway like unsteady mirages’. It warned me of the difficult read ahead and was most definitely not an advert for an Irish tourist board brochure, you might want to reconsider on that short budget flight you were contemplating. Like the landscape they inhabit the characters reflect this bleakness in their individual and cumulative experiences.
The central figure of Kate is not a character who inspired warmth in me. The lack of any real description of love between her parents is conveyed in her own relationships with other characters, both Brian and her daughter Lavinia. Later in the story she is able to reflect and understand how her mother wanted to be anchored to the land whilst her father was a free spirit destined for a life of exploration.The pain her mother felt by the rejection from an outsider to the community, manifests itself in the wild and brutal Banshee like rage she demonstrates towards her daughter. Whilst experiencing disdain for some of her mother’s behaviour it is hard not to feel sympathy for the anguish she suffers as a traditional country girl with an unspecified but probably limited educational background, tethered to a daughter and husband who needed to spread their intellectual wings beyond the confines of the village.
Kate’s relationship with her father is equally complex, albeit in a different way, wanting to hate him but clearly drawn to his persona more than her mother and incapable of pushing him away. He is represented in the story by the physical representation of the dictionary which he gifted to his daughter. Kate’s relationship with Brian, a tragic alcoholic shrouded in a mysterious family tragedy, I found controlling and manipulative at times. A teenage couple they had once been, but now as a mature adult she was still attracted to his vulnerability and I felt that her reignited contact with him would further add to his pain and suffering, which admittedly much of was self inflicted. Likewise I felt that her relationship with her daughter was at times stilted, competitive and ambivalent. The only sense of bonding that I truly felt between them came towards the end of the story when they seemed to find common ground over the sharing of words and singing.
Which leads me to the central message of the story, the power of words and spoken communication. We know only that Kate is a teacher of English to foreign learners so we know she has chosen a vocation requiring her to be helpful to others. She describes the way in which words can be ‘a way to triumph’ and how ‘words have histories, words have roots. Their history is held in the word itself, the way the past is still held and has meaning in our present lives’. To me it is only at the end of the story when Kate is truly capable of expressing a clear and erudite communication which contrasts sharply with the muddled and unclear way in which she has earlier communicated with other characters in the story.
Stylish and well written with many layers to unwrap in its relatively short length, I found myself drawn into this story and sucked into the ‘Dark pool’ (Dubh Linn) curious to know how it concluded for all the characters involved. I did not find it an easy read but it is compelling, thought provoking and fascinating. Rosemary Johnston has created a very compact and interesting narrative and one I recommend to other readers.
Rosemary Johnston grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland but she now lives in North Yorkshire with her family. Source is her debut novel which won the New Fictions Prize in 2021. It is published by Story Machine. She regularly writes articles on poetry, language and history. Her plays have been produced at the Gateway Theatre in Chester and she has also completed a debut novel The Children of Angels’ Eyrie.
Source was reviewed for Books Up North by John Hill
John is an English Literature graduate and experienced EFL tutor who currently offers pastoral support to Sixth Form students at a college in the North West. In his free-time he enjoys travel, walking, nature, art, literature and following Rugby League in no particular order!
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