Vinny's Wilderness

- relationships, contemporary fiction

Vinny's Wilderness

Janet Shepperson

Vinny's Wilderness opens with a divorced teacher returning to her home in south Belfast, where she discovers that her dearly loved, overgrown garden has been bulldozed and unceremoniously dumped in a skip outside her house.

What follows are her vivid memories of the previous four months, when she tutored Denzil, a lively, personable young boy. More interested in the outdoors than engaging in the learning essential to successfully pass the 'eleven-plus' exams required to get him into second-level education, Denzil struggles against the constraints and expectations within his rigid family home. As he begins to emerge from his shell, playing with Vinny's daughter in their chaotic garden, Vinny and Denzil's mother discover a shared past, and tentatively pick up their friendship after a split during their own time working towards the eleven-plus exams.

Vinny's Wilderness is a sensitive rendering of childhood friendship, tinged with nostalgia viewed through the emotional intensity of studying for your first major exam. Reminiscent of the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante, it illustrates how friendship can survive adolescence and in adulthood evolve into the support needed to change your life and become your true self.

My Thoughts

I enjoyed this book, but I didn’t love it in the way I wanted to. I liked Vinny and how she was trying to make a good life for her and her daughter after her divorce, and I liked her attitude and that she was a caring and hard-working teacher. I liked her intelligent, independent daughter, Roisin, who was written well and acted her age.

I love the background of the overgrown garden, and what it means to Vinny and what it means to Roisin and Denzil, the child that Vinny is tutoring in preparation for his eleven-plus exam.

I like the portrayal of the pressure on a child to do well in exams and how they are tutored to pass rather than taught to understand, and how some people think that not getting into the “right” school spells disaster for life. The social implications for how this could pan out are portrayed quite well, but I found a little stereotypical; the story, however, does present a powerful message.

I found most of the characters too flat, though. Alex, Denzil’s mother and Vinny’s friend and complete opposite, doesn’t behave consistently and yet this isn’t part of the story so I was left wondering whether this was a deliberate character trait or poor character development by the writer. Denzil, a ten-year-old, is written well, although I felt his character could have been considered more.

None of the men are well rounded. Denzil’s father is a bit of a cliché and would have benefitted from being explored more fully. Chris is a bit of a spare part, but he could have played a much more interesting role in the story. Rory has a walk-on part, but again could have been fleshed out much more.

The wild and overgrown garden is an important “character” in the story. I could imagine it to a good extent, but feel that more description would have given me a better overview.

The coincidences in the plot are clunky and obvious and the back story is shoe-horned in, in chunks and seemingly in rather random places.

I did enjoy reading this story, but I feel it could have been crafted into something that I would have loved if the writer had maybe more experience or guidance. It is quite short (around 50,000 words I would guess), and although I would not advocate padding for the sake of it, I think in this instance a longer book would have added depth and interest to the story.

Editorial Input & Design

I think the author would have benefitted from more guidance from an editor. The story is good but is rather clunkily executed. There is scope for mystery, but we are handed information upfront; where mystery has been attempted, we can see where the plot is heading long before we get there.

Not a lot is left to the imagination and there is a lot of telling rather than showing. The backstory is inserted somewhat inelegantly by “remembering” – paragraphs inserted as though they were written in a different file and copy and pasted to a suitable place in the main story.

A copy editor would have picked up the incorrect ‘fact’ Vinny teaches her student. Also, it’s not clear when the story is set, but it’s up to date, I’d say. The whole premise is based on eleven-plus exams, which I think were discontinued in 2008 – my knowledge of this is hazy, but I know they have been replaced with transfer tests which are commonly but not officially referred to as eleven-plus, but I don’t recall this being explained in the book – a copy editor would have got this in there somewhere. (I’m happy to amend this if I’ve got it wrong.)

I’m sure the text has been proofread (with a few misses, such as misplaced or missing commas, misplaced closing quotes, a missing full stop, several places where two words are run together), but I suspect it may have been on a pre-formatted document rather than page proofs. There are many bad line and word breaks and a large number of new paragraphs that aren’t indented – a proofreader might have missed the odd one, but not this many.

Cover: Not very exciting, but I like it. I’m not sure it would have tempted me to delve deeper if I had seen it on a shop shelf, though.

Internal design: The text is quite large and the margins are wide – presumably this is to make this short book into something resembling a more normal-length novel. The format isn’t really to my liking – and I did, in fact, find that it affected my reading of the story.

The formatting isn’t up to Liberties’ normal standard: poor line breaks, paragraphs full out when they should have been indented, a few widows and orphans, and some rather obvious tight kerning to get a line to fit, some loose kerning to get another line to fit – and some even odder kerning where there is no obvious reason for it. In a couple of places two words are run together.

Book Clubs & Reviews

A good read for a book club. Discussion would likely be around expectations put on children, the characters of the two women, the roles of the fathers, childhood and adulthood friendships, and gardening.

What others are saying: Amazon UK readers give it 5 stars (1 reviewer); Amazon US readers haven’t yet reviewed it; Goodreads readers give it 5 stars (1 rating – the same reviewer as on Amazon).


Irish Times

Culture Hub magazine

Buy & Author

Published by Liberties Press and available from their website.

Liberties Press (paperback €13.99) (paperback £7.69; ePub £3.49)

Amazon (Kindle £8.03/$11.59; paperback £9.99/$15.99)

Connect with the author:

I can’t find the author online – happy to update if anyone can give me links.

Links of interest

Dublin Review of Books Extract The author explains how she came to write the book – worth reading

Over to You – Comment and Share!

  • Lorna Sixsmith says:

    The 11+ exam is still alive and well in cities where there are grammar schools anyway. K’s godmother lives in Salisbury and they got their son extra classes to tutor him for the exam. Listening to it, I was kinda glad that we weren’t still there for that reason, I’d hate to put the kids through that work and stress. It seems very elitist too, I’d imagine a kid whose parents aren’t able to afford extra lessons, would have to be extra bright to pass as it seems that it’s understanding how to answer the questions in a particular way is part of the key to success.

    19 May 2016 14:32:31

  • Clare says:

    Yes, that’s exactly what the book is about – how there is huge pressure on the child to do well and the well-off parents paying for tutors. I think in Northern Ireland they are called transfer tests, although they are colloquially known as the eleven plus.

    I think you’d quite like this book, Lorna. Being a mum and having been a teacher it will certainly have you gnashing your teeth in frustration!

    20 May 2016 20:44:18

  • Lorna Sixsmith says:

    I must give it a go during the summer and I’ll get Kate to read it too. She’s reading a lot of fantasy books at the mo and I think different genres would be a good idea too

    22 May 2016 17:34:39

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