Vinny’s Wilderness, by Janet Shepperson, explores the lasting impact of school exams, especially on those deemed failures at a young age. Set in Belfast, where the continuing prevalence of grammar schools requires that ten year olds are groomed to sit selection tests in order to gain entry to the ‘good’ schools, it introduces us to two very different families.
Vinny is a single mother, a divorced teacher raising her daughter in the least sectarian area of the city she can afford. Alex is a stay at home mum of three, the wife of a wealthy doctor living in a large property off the moneyed Malone Road. She employs Vinny to tutor her youngest child for the transfer test, still commonly called the eleven plus, as he is struggling to grasp the concepts required to gain the sought after A/B grade.
Vinny’s home is small and untidy, her garden wild and overgrown, a haven for children’s play and imagination. She has taken on the tutoring to raise money to take her daughter, Roisin, on a summer holiday. Roisin is on the cusp of adolescence, an intelligent child who will not have to sit the transfer test as she is to attend one of the few integrated schools which cater for all abilities as well as both sides of the sectarian divide.
Alex’s home is as perfectly toned and groomed as its mistress. Both have featured in the glossy Interiors magazines that grace a polished coffee table. The glazed sun room is devoid of a single fingerprint, smudge or blemish. Even the garden is manicured to within an inch of its life. Alex’s elder two children are heading towards the successful careers expected in such a family. Her younger son, Denzil, is the anomaly, a dreamy child who relishes creativity and the great outdoors. His father blames Alex for what he regards as his son’s failings, pointing out that she attained a mere C in her eleven plus.
In a society where each person’s perceived intelligence may be judged by the school they attended from age eleven, exams take on a stratospheric importance to aspirational parents. Alex may have attended the school for those expected to be failures in life but she subsequently reinvented herself as a supportive, trophy wife, essential to the smooth management of her accomplished husband’s immaculate home. Vinny, who passed her eleven plus and thereby attended a coveted grammar school, became a teacher but was apparently less successful when it came to her personal life.
Vinny has, however, been happier since her divorce. She is now able to relax in a home that welcomes her children’s friends, never worrying about muddy footprints, creative mess, or the timing, style and contents of an evening meal. In contrast Alex appears brittle and on edge as she scurries too and fro trying to fit her home and children into her husband’s precise mould.
As Alex and Vinny grow closer they learn of each other’s pasts and start to influence their futures. Vinny’s comfortable chaos is threatened, Alex’s ordered life develops cracks.
As a native of Belfast I relished the memories so poignantly evoked. The author has captured the vernacular as well as the attitudes of a place where a portion of the population fights to remain a part of a kingdom whose laws it rejects, while others prioritise wider family over home. I enjoyed the small part played by the German lady whose pithy comments on the education system, and on grown men who spend too much time with their mothers, offered humorous truths to be pondered.
This is a tale of friendship, motherhood, and the importance of substance in a life judged by wrappings. It invites the reader to reflect on the weight given to homogenisation in education, leading to the segregation of those who do not fit and subsequent outcomes that affect all. It is a reminder that intelligence, academic and emotional, is more than providing prescribed answers in a child’s test.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Liberties Press.