The Maiden Dinosaur by Janet McNeill

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Reviewed by Julie B

“Barbara Pym…Elizabeth Taylor…” exalted company for any author’s novel, and when I noticed these names on the front of this book I must admit I was a little sceptical. How could an author who I had never heard of writing in Ireland in 1964 be mentioned in the same breath? As I read this book, however, I realised that the subtlety of this writing is definitely in the same class. For those who long for a few more events in mid – century novels, the events in this book are faithfully recorded, but seem to emerge naturally from the characters, rather than being forced in to suit. Yet there are still the recognizable situations, the understandable feelings and reactions, and the people who ‘feel real’ that I would look for in Persephone and similar books. So, yes, Reader, this is definitely worth tracking down and reading.

Sarah Vincent is a fifty year old teacher, unmarried and still living in part of the house she grew up in, with all its ghosts. Helen is the woman downstairs, fearful of losing her attractiveness and yet also grieving for a lost past. Two couples, Addie and Gerald, and Felicity and Justin make up the group living in this large house, full of unspoken urges, joys and challenges.

The book opens with Sarah attending a tea party with her group of school friends. She realises on the way that she has not made any effort to dress herself to compete or even fit in with the other women, and when she tries to open some perfume there is disaster. It is a small event, but well observed and explains much of her character in the face of the other women, either successful socially, with an impressive maternal track record, hypochondriac or still young enough to announce a happy event. One of the clever aspects of this book is to show alternatives, perhaps now too late for Sarah, but true outcomes for the schoolgirls that these women once were. There are also portraits of the girls that Sarah teaches, with their passions and fears, to form a contrast with the view of the older women. McNeill manages this by changing the point of view of the narration, from Sarah’s to Sally’s, from the third person to a man bewildered by the women her either cares for, or has loved in the past. In less skilful hands this could have been bewildering or clunky, but McNeill’s delicate turns and focus changes kept my attention and interest.

This is also a funny book, with some real pictures of life as it is actually experienced. Sarah is not slim and used to entertaining, in contrast with Helen, and her frantic attempts to buy a dress and then cook a meal are at once realistic and painfully funny. Chapter Ten begins with the word “Hips?” and it is downhill from there. My favourite section is when Addie and Sarah are invited to discuss the latter’s poetry on television. Tired of the suggestion that genteel ladies who have always lived in comfort have not the experience of suffering necessary for writing good poetry (!), Addie bursts into an impassioned speech that sets the young interviewer right, if not terrified.

The men in this book are bewildered and confused rather than dominating. They are essentially human and real rather than challenging and disruptive. Yet this is not just a woman’s book, rather one that offers a real sense that this is how life was lived in all its uneven flow and small crisis.

So, yes, a moving and fascinating book. This publisher promises two other novels by this author, and I would be keen to track them down. Not a modern book, full of world changing events, but a gentle picture of a woman’s life, and her realisation that life can and does offer more.

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Julie blogs at Northern Reader.

Janet McNeill,  The Maiden Dinosaur (Turnpike Books, 2015). 978-0957233690, 192pp., paperback.

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