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Janet McNeill
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Group Reads > January 2019: Janet McNeill

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message 1: by Kirsty (last edited Dec 10, 2018 03:08AM) (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
Please discuss whatever you are choosing to read by our first ever monthly author, Janet McNeill, here.

I have also come across a great article about McNeill on the Irish Times: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/bo...


message 2: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
I've just purchased The Small Widow, and am really excited to begin it! What is everyone else going to be reading?


message 3: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
I've found quite a few copies which are relatively inexpensive on AbeBooks; I ended up only paying around £2.50 for my copy of The Small Widow. I'm looking forward to discussing it with you. Which of her books have you already read?


message 4: by Laura (new)

Laura  (loranne) Canadian Reader recommended "The Maiden Dinosaur", so will try to get that - in time for January.
Great choice or great random pick Kirsty - thanks.


message 5: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
Fantastic reviews, Canadian!

Good luck with getting the book, Laura. I have seen that there are some recent (2015 or thereabouts) reprints of McNeill's novels, so hopefully they aren't too expensive. I chose everything on the list via a random number generator; thankfully Herta Muller didn't come up, as nobody seemed too keen to read her!


message 6: by Laura (new)

Laura  (loranne) I really liked Canadian's reviews and McNeill is a family name, so double reasons to read.


message 7: by Andrea (new)

Andrea (cloudbusting) I’ve picked The Small Widow too because it sounded the most interesting to me! Looking forward to reading it and discovering a new author. Y


message 8: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
I'm glad everyone is so looking forward to our first monthly author!


message 9: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
I finished The Small Widow this morning, and very much enjoyed it. I’ll have my review up by the end of the week.


message 10: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
I'll be posting my spoiler-free review of The Small Widow shortly.


message 11: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
The Small Widow

Irish writer Janet McNeill seems to be unjustly underappreciated.  Whilst a prolific author, publishing ten novels for adults and penning a whole host of radio plays, it is her children's books for which she is most well known - and for those, she seems to be barely remembered.  She has intrigued me ever since I saw her single title, Tea at Four o' Clock, represented on the Virago Modern Classics list.  Whilst I was unable to find a copy of the aforementioned in time for my book club's monthly author selection, I got my hands on a copy of The Small Widow, and am so pleased that I did.

Fortnight writes of McNeill's work favourably, and draws parallels between her and 'English novelists such as Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner and, more particularly, Elizabeth Taylor.  What their writing shares... is a subtlety which makes demands of its readers.'  These three are all novelists whom I very much enjoy reading, and I have adored everything of Taylor's which I have read to date.  I was therefore most excited to begin The Small Widow.

The novel's protagonist is a middle-aged woman named Julia, who has been left a widow after the death of her husband Harold.  She is 'alone and struggling with grief as well as her new life.'  She is a mother to four children, none of whom she feels overly comfortable in interacting with, as their relationships have shifted so much since their childhoods.  For the first time, she 'has to learn independence, she needs to discover who she is when she is no longer a wife and is now a mother to children who do not need her.'  The central question which the novel asks is this: 'As a widow can Julia find a freedom, an identity, which has never existed in her life before?'

The novel opens with Harold's funeral: 'The car slowed, they were approaching the gates.  Julia's throat tightened, the impossible thing is happening now...  She ached to escape from the pressure of her daughters' hips, the inevitability of shared warmth and the threat of shared emotion.'  The funeral scene is vivid: 'The mourners formed into an untidy procession and started in the direction of the grave, trying to find a pace between a stroll and a trot.  The raw wind robbed them of any attempt at dignity.  It plucked their hair and their clothes, snatched the breath out of their mouths and ruffled the tufts of frozen grass.  Only the humped shapes of the dead were undisturbed.'  McNeill goes on to probe Julia's conflicting emotions about her sudden loss.  At this point in time, when everything is raw and new, she sees her children as '... four relentless and dedicated orphans, demanding a formal come-back from her, the Mother Figure, whom they had discarded years ago.  It wasn't fair.  Julia felt that she needed protection from them.'  

The Small Widow is told using the third person omniscient perspective, which has been interspersed with Julia's opinions and concerns.  In this way, McNeill makes us party to Julia's innermost thoughts, and the secretive, one-sided conversations which she imagines with her husband: 'I'll do my mourning for you later, Harold.  Just now I am getting through this the best way I can.  You could have coped magnificently with my funeral, Harold.  I don't know how to cope with yours.'  These asides continue throughout the book, and are particularly poignant when Julia considers her children.  Of her son, Johnnie, who lives in an outbuilding on her property, and runs a small bookshop, she thinks: 'To him I'm not a person in the ordinary sense of the word.  I was typecast the minute the cord was cut.  I have been drained and diminished by motherhood.  I am a collection of attitudes, a pocket-sized matriarch whom it is traditional to have around...  It doesn't help these self-made creatures to remember they are the children of my body.  I have done my job.  I am allowed, expected, to love them still, but at a decent distance.'

Julia's concerns do not just affect her family.  Some of them are deeply personal, and seem trivial at first to outsiders.  She therefore keeps her grievances private, sometimes excruciatingly so.  She is forced to make all sorts of adjustments, and get used to the absence of things which she has grown so accustomed to throughout her long marriage.  For instance, 'During the day the uninhabited area of the bed made her embarrassed.  One didn't think of bereavement as posing problems like this.  One expected anguish, not embarrassment.  (I shall feel anguish in a week or two, Harold, just now there isn't anything much that I feel.  It was puzzling to know what to do about the space here and all through the house that Harold used to occupy.  Presumably time would spill over and close the gaps, like the bark of a tree when it has been cut.'  She develops coping mechanisms; if she does not move from her place on the sofa or in bed for the entirety of the day, for example, 'she wouldn't notice that she was by herself.'

The Small Widow was first published in 1967, and was the only book which McNeill wrote whilst living outside Northern Ireland.  In the novel, she 'anticipates many of the concerns of the 1970's women's movement in its awareness of the restricted role of women in the traditional family and marriage.'  I liked the way in which McNeill pushed against these limitations, giving Julia a voice and authority of her own, which built as the novel went on.  I found myself rooting for our central character, who rises above the opinions which others around her hold of women in her particular position, and the demands which they often make upon her.  The Small Widow feels far more modern, in many ways, than it is; Julia's concerns are still prevalent in today's society, particularly with regard to loneliness, and the shifting relationships between parents and their grown children.  The familial relationships here are revealing, and have a complexity to them; they shift both with time, and as a consequence of Julia finding her voice.

As a character portrait, The Small Widow is striking.  Throughout, Julia has a great deal of depth to her, and I found her surprising rather than predictable.  Her character arc alters  believably due to her circumstances.  On the basis of this well-sculpted novel, it is evident why one of her books has been published by Virago; it is just a shame that more haven't followed suit.


message 12: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
Wonderful review! I'm so interested in what you said about the pacing of the book, that the final part is 'rushed and rather weak. Coming too hard and too fast, the denouement feels unnecessarily melodramatic'. I definitely agree with you, but don't think I was as aware of it when I was reading as I am upon reflection of the novel. I read much of the novel in one sitting, and did not question the pace of it as much as I ordinarily would, because I felt very immersed within Julia's story, and the progression of her grieving process.


message 13: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
I also very much agree with your comment about McNeill's sense of humour; I loved her dry humour and wit peppered throughout the novel.


message 14: by Laura (new)

Laura  (loranne) I certainly like what I'm hearing about McNeill - the whole psychological depth to her main character - and digging and exposing areas - not normally considered interesting, or relevant, or important enough etc. Especially the idea - the mother/adult-child relationship being redundant - it often is, but not discussed.
I often think that young women are sacrificed at the alter - of child -rearing/child-care.

Canadian - I stopped reading Brookner, because I found her so very gloomy. Too many old ladies - trying to whet their fading appetites.


message 15: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
Mimi wrote: "These all sounds really interesting, I've ordered a second-hand old Virago of 'Tea at 4 O'clock' which should arrive soon..."

I'm itching to order a copy too; I shall eagerly await your review!


message 16: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
Laura, I agree; I only have experience of reading The Small Widow, but felt as though McNeill probes things which are so important, that I haven't really read about in other books. I found the novel highly thought-provoking, and there were elements in it which I had not considered much before. Most pertinent for me was the way in which some people can be so surrounded by family, but still feel lonely and adrift from life.

I agree about Brookner being gloomy, but I do largely enjoy her books. I read quite a few of them last year, and found them all very similar in terms of characters, plot, and theme, however, so I've hung back on reading anything else of hers since.


message 17: by Laura (new)

Laura  (loranne) I waiting for my copy of "Tea at 4 o'clock".


message 18: by Kirsty (last edited Jan 07, 2019 02:40AM) (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
I agree with you about Brookner’s writing! I was involved in a book club a few years ago, and we read Hotel du Lac, which only two of us enjoyed, but a few others made comments about admiring her writing style.


message 19: by Laura (new)

Laura  (loranne) Got mine yesterday, and started. Laura is coming across as a wimp.


message 20: by Carrie (last edited Jan 16, 2019 07:19AM) (new)

Carrie  (icanhasbooks) | 79 comments I was having a hard time finding this author until I remembered "Open Library' it's a legit site and they have a handful of her books you can borrow for I believe 14 days. No fee's and you don't keep the books. They even have an app in the google play store. So I'm going to read Tea At Four O'Clock


message 21: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
Fantastic, Carrie! I'm really looking forward to hearing what you think of it.


message 22: by Laura (new)

Laura  (loranne) Hi Carrie - I've been slowed down on my reading of "Tea at 4 o'clock" - glad you've got it. I won't make any comments here yet - Canadian has read it - and reviewed it. Ah yes and Mimi is waiting for her copy - so there's 4 of us to discuss this. Kirsty also has ordered.
I suppose I'm listing because it's an open choice - but it seems we're all doing this one. Ok, great - end of Jan discussion?


message 23: by Laura (new)

Laura  (loranne) Correction - Mimi is reading.


message 24: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
I actually haven’t ordered it yet; I tried to find it in Waterstone’s earlier today, but unsurprisingly had no luck. I’m trying to buy less books this year and went a little mad today, so I might get it later on in the year and then comment on the discussion afterwards.


message 25: by Carrie (new)

Carrie  (icanhasbooks) | 79 comments Laura wrote: "Hi Carrie - I've been slowed down on my reading of "Tea at 4 o'clock" - glad you've got it. I won't make any comments here yet - Canadian has read it - and reviewed it. Ah yes and Mimi is waiting f..."

Yes that sounds great.


message 26: by Carrie (last edited Jan 28, 2019 05:34PM) (new)

Carrie  (icanhasbooks) | 79 comments I have just finished Tea At Four O'Clock, I enjoyed it. There was nothing over special about the book, but I do feel for Laura. I don't want to say too much regarding the story as so many of you seem to have it on the way. I will agree Canadian, that the ending wasn't overly fulfilling and one is left wondering 'what now'.


message 27: by Kirsty (last edited Jan 29, 2019 01:12AM) (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
I’m still intrigued enough to pick it up soon, Carrie. I’m sorry that you didn’t enjoy it that much. Did you like McNeill’s writing style?


message 28: by Laura (last edited Jan 29, 2019 08:34AM) (new)

Laura  (loranne) Hi Carrie - I can agree. I gave it five stars, but felt it was quite gloomy and sad, with yes a certain element of contrivance at the end. But I think the author is not particularly interested in story telling, she's much more interested in the effect of social convention and restriction on her characters and how different individuals cope with these pressures.
Kirsty - writing style - it's very fine - with plenty of references to externals which portray the internals. I would need to think a bit more before offering any further comments


message 29: by Carrie (new)

Carrie  (icanhasbooks) | 79 comments McNeill did a fantastic job, in writing this book, the only issue with for me, would be the mid paragraph change in which character was the one doing the thinking/pov. It didn't flow as well as it could have. And it wasn't all the time. I gave it 4 stars.

I have to agree with Laura, it was gloomy and sad. The actions of one and the ripple effect it seemed to create for each character both main or background.


message 30: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
I read one of McNeill's children's books, A Monster Too Many, a couple of days ago. It focuses upon two young boys who discover a monster living in the pond in their local park, and feel compelled to help it. Whilst it was entertaining enough, I did find it quite brief, and there was barely any explanation given as to what the monster was, and why he was there. I probably would have enjoyed it much more had I read it as child; however, it felt a little flat, and whilst the writing was fine, there wasn't much of McNeill's dark humour at play.


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