WHEN A CONSCIENCE KNOCKS
James G. Skinner
Reviewed by Tammy Ruggles for Reader Views (08/2020)
“When a Conscience Knocks,” by James G. Skinner, is a grand love story wrapped in a novel of political intrigue. At its heart, the love story involves English teacher Jenny Robertson and Second Secretary to the Spanish Embassy, Juan Miguel Ochoa. Their first meeting over coffee ignites a romance and dedication of thirty years.
Jenny is a unique sort, and so is Juan Miguel, and there is a classic feel to their early romance, with long drives, day trips, picnics, sightseeing, book lending, phone calls, wine, roses, and candles. During those thirty years, they travel together, become closer, co-mingle in political affairs, and face life’s ups and downs. And then a bombshell of a different sort is dropped when Juan receives a diagnosis of early Alzheimer’s Disease. This scenario shows how such a diagnosis affects a relationship, careers, and hopes and dreams. The machinery of international dealings is no match for a disease that will eventually rob you of your life’s work, your personality, and even your precious memories. The major plot twist adds to the pain and drama of the novel.
This novel would be good for the political/international aspects alone (historical events in the Middle East, Madrid, and other locations), but the love story is what is most riveting to me. A pivotal moment in the couple’s relationship is also a spoiler if I mention it here, so let’s just say its rawness and honesty jump off the page as you read.
This book feels like a true story, and in a way it IS true for many couples living, and dying, with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Skinner has a beautiful way with words. His descriptions are poignant in their simplicity, and rich in detail, reminding me of Cormac McCarthy’s style. The broader plot is interesting and introduces you to a world of politics and culture that feel realistic and span decades.
But it’s the details that make Skinner a great writer. For example, the way he describes little things, like how a passerby is dressed, or the fleeting thoughts of a confused person. You ache for the two main characters, Jenny, and Juan Miguel, but of course in different ways. You want things to return to the way they were before mental decline, but they can’t. A writer who causes you to feel for the characters as real people and think about them long after the book is over, has done his job. The novel is told in first-person, by Jenny, which makes the events feel more personal and accessible.
There is nothing cliché about this novel. No wasted words. Everything feels crisp and clean, like a vintage film from the early days. “When a Conscience Knocks,” by James G. Skinner, will break your heart, but will confirm it too.