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One woman’s life follows a roller-coaster ride of love, political turmoil, and tragedy in James G. Skinner’s novel When a Conscience Knocks.
Jenny Robinson enters a confessional and falls apart. Sensing her distress, the Catholic priest encourages her to divulge her story, which she does. In 1976, at the age of twenty-two, Jenny left her hometown of Richmond, England, and took a teaching job in Iran.
It’s during this time where she meets Juan Miguel Ochoa, a Gallaecian. A diplomat at the Spanish Embassy, Juan is near twenty years her senior. Romance ensues, and within less than two years, Jenny and Juan marry.
Jenny has no idea what she’s getting into as she blindly trusts Juan’s lead throughout his diplomatic career. During their marriage, Juan’s work takes them to numerous trips through Europe, Central and South America, and the USA amid political tensions, wars, and terrorism. But as they approach their twenty-fifth anniversary, life throws a disturbing curveball. Juan’s erratic behavior heralds the early onset of Alzheimer’s. While Jenny’s life abruptly fills with uncertainty, the last thing she expects is to be involved in an affair.
New author James G. Skinner opens with a conflicting scene as his principal character, Jenny Robinson Ochoa, confesses to committing adultery. At the same time, her husband slowly succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease in a nursing care facility. What follows in the twenty-plus chapters is the account she discloses to a Catholic priest.
Jenny’s feelings and thoughts about her husband’s involvement with the chaotic global events surrounding them dominate Skinner’s first-person British narrative. Her continual ponderings, covered within a chronological list of backstories, capture her personality’s development amid the ebb and flow of their marriage, travels, and political upheavals. Conversations between Jenny and Juan focus on explanations of world history and Juan’s diplomatic involvement to a politically uninterested wife. Although the many dialogue scenes that present facts tend to be a bit dry, Skinner does a decent job weaving in historical events.
As stated in the Dedication, the purpose of When a Conscience Knocks is to provide readers with an example of how Alzheimer’s affects intimate relationships. No one would dispute that Alzheimer’s disease is devastating to both victims and loved ones, and Skinner’s fictional character is not exempt. Rather than placing the debilitating disease front and center, Skinner pivots the attention upon the partner. Indeed, this is a coming-of-age tale—one’s woman’s struggle to find her identity, her voice amid conflict and relational codependency.
When a Conscience Knocks takes an alternate route, describing the pain and torment those on the sidelines experience when their partners succumb to Alzheimer’s disease’s devastation.