My debut novel was born out of a passionate sense of indignation. In Northern Ireland, it’s well known that we have a divided society: Catholics and Protestants. This has been written about endlessly – but what hasn’t been written about enough, it seems to me, is the other great divide: the haves and the have-nots. All societies have this divide, of course – but it’s not every society that separates the haves and the have-nots by an actual exam that ten year olds have to sit.
It’s called the eleven plus, and it consists of a medley of English and Maths which the ten year olds have to ‘cram’ for if they want to get into grammar school. In 2009 it was actually ‘abolished’ by the Sinn Fein Minister of Education, with the unfortunate result that the Grammar Schools now set their own, unregulated tests. Primary schools aren’t supposed to prepare the kids for these tests – consequently, the amount of private coaching has gone through the roof. Which is where the haves and the have-nots come in; all this coaching doesn’t come cheap, not to mention the money the parents bribe the kids with (“Every week if you do well in your practise tests, we’ll give you extra pocket money, but only if you get at least 80%…. and if you get an A in the real thing, we’ll buy you a new bike…” etc)
But how to turn all this from a rant into a novel? I rapidly discounted the idea of telling the whole thing from the point of view of a ten year old. True, Emma Donoghue wrote her brilliant novel ‘Room’ from the point of view of a five year old, but there was nothing going on in that room that he didn’t know about, except for what was happening inside his mother’s head. Whereas, what the adults go through/get up to around the whole business of the eleven plus can be fascinating, but wouldn’t be known about by a ten year old unless he/she was an exceptionally talented eavesdropper.
So I decided to make my main character, Vinny, a teacher, and to gain the necessary objectivity, I’d make her a hard-up single mother earning a bit of extra cash by doing some eleven plus coaching – something I never would have done myself – or would I? Well – maybe if I really needed the money – and if it was only for a little bit –
And before long, as I gazed out of my study window at my overgrown, neglected garden, more characters came striding in: Alex, a glamorous Mum, working at her image as a Trophy wife as if her life depended on it; Derek, her husband, so stressed by his life as a hospital consultant in a stretched-beyond-capacity health service that he hasn’t the time or flexibility to get to know his youngest son; and Denzil, their wee boy, bright but incapable of concentrating for long on anything involving a random mixture of Maths problems, English questions and absolutely no possibility of getting muddy.
The problem of What on earth are we going to do about Denzil? became the central issue of the novel, and Vinny and Alex would struggle to face up to it, just as they struggled to face up to the problems in their own lives.
I soon realized that with plenty of creative exaggeration, this unkempt garden could become the ideal playground for Denzil; he’d come into his own in this wild, back-to-nature environment. He and Roisin, Vinny’s daughter, after an initial bout of standoffishness, would create an adventure course for themselves, an alternative world. And Vinny? The wilderness would be her refuge, a place to relax, away from the stresses of her own life.
But of course, to the little nagging voice in Vinny’s head – and don’t we all have one of those? – the wilderness would be a weed-infested eyesore, an embarrassment, something that might well cause neighbours and visitors to think: why on earth can’t she get that mess sorted out? And so the beginning of my story shaped itself. Someone – Vinny doesn’t know who – has decided to act on these disapproving thoughts. Someone has, in fact, hired a firm of landscape gardeners to come in with a digger, root up Vinny’s cherished nature reserve and start installing an overly tidy, sanitized, joyless garden complete with artificial turf and white gravel. And Vinny, arriving back from work one day to find her daughter in tears and her garden rooted up, is shattered, and casts her mind back over the last few months since bossy, brittle Alex came into her life – Alex couldn’t have done this, of course – but who has?
So the story begins with Vinny in bereavement mode, and a four month flashback follows in which Vinny, curled up on her sofa drinking cheap wine and struggling not to look out of the window, goes back through her recent past, and sometimes, at particularly intense moments in the story, right back to the much more distant past …. when she hears the voice of the sad, baffled ten-year-old she once was ….
And because nothing in a novel should never end in too neat, cut-and-dried a way, when Vinny finally returns to the present day – with Alex offering both an explanation for the debacle and a dramatic solution for her own problems – the reader has to decide, along with Vinny, if this is just a brave fantasy, or if it really has the potential to work …
(c) Janet Shepperson
About Vinny’s Wilderness
Vinny’s Wilderness opens in South Belfast with divorced teacher Vinny. She returns to her home in south Belfast to discover that her dearly loved and overgrown garden has been bulldozed and unceremoniously dumped in a skip outside her house. Who is responsible?
We learn of her friendship with the glamorous Alex Masterton, whose son Denzil she is tutoring for the elevenplus. More interested in the outdoors than in endless practice papers, Denzil struggles against expectations, both at school, and within his rigid family home. The constraints governing Alex’s life as Mrs Masterton are similarly exposed, with a psychologically abusive husband scornful of her supposedly inferior education.
As Alex and Vinny’s relationship develops, both women struggle to come to terms with past hurts and Alex makes a dramatic decision that will affect all their lives. Vinny’s Wilderness is a sensitive rendering of childhood friendship, meditating on the importance and strength of female friendships alongside the curveballs of motherhood. Reminiscent of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante.
Vinny’s Wilderness is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!
Janet Shepperson is originally from Scotland. She has been living in Belfast since 1978, and has worked as a trainee journalist, primary teacher, creative writing tutor and facilitator for Poetry in Motion. She is also a widely published poet, with work featured in The Honest Ulsterman, Poetry Ireland Review, The Southern Review, Cyphers, Crannog, The Stinging Fly among others. Her poetry collections are The Aphrodite Stone (Salmon Poetry, 1995) and Eve Complains to God (Lagan Press, 2004). She is also the author of several short stories appearing in Fortnight, Passages, Blackstaff Book of Short Stories 1 and 2, the Irish Press and Sunday Tribune, the latter two being shortlisted for Hennessey Awards.