Mcneil, Jean 1968-
McNEIL, Jean 1968-
Born 1968, in New Brunswick, Canada. Education: Attended a university in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Home—London, England. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 491 Clapham High St., London SW4 9TA, England.
New Writing award, London Arts Board, 1997; Prism International Fiction Competition winner, 1997; Journey Prize for Fiction in Canada nomination, 1998; nominee for the 2003 Governor Gereral's Literary Award for Private View.
(With Stephanie Hughes and Peter Scuffil) Tony Elliott, editor, The Book of London, Quick Fox (New York, NY), 1973.
Hunting down Home (novel), Phoenix House (London, England), 1996, Milkweed Editions (Minneapolis, MN), 1999.
Nights in a Foreign Country (short stories), Phoenix House (London, England), 2000.
Private View (novel), Weidenfeld & Nicholson (London, England), 2002.
In her job as a travel writer for the "Rough Guides" series, Canadian-born Londoner Jean McNeil made good use of her speaking knowledge of French, Spanish, and Portuguese. The author of The Rough Guide to Costa Rica, McNeil did her research by living it, and has also spent time in Brazil, Mexico, and several other Central American countries. However, in the late 1990s she turned closer to home and found the inspiration to begin work as a fiction writer. Her first novel, Hunting down Home features a protagonist who, like McNeil herself, grows up on an island off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, under the care of her grandparents. A coming-of-age story that finds young Morag ignored by her grandmother, suffering abuse at the hand of her musician grandfather, and yet accepting of her lot, the novel creates tension through "an accumulation of short sharp scenes of physical or verbal skirmish that build anger and expectancy to a breaking point," according to Times Literary Supplement contributor Lavinia Greenlaw. Noting that McNeil sometimes includes "overheated, strained imagery," Greenlaw nonetheless praised the novelist's "wonderfully awkward but concise dialogue" and maintained that her "occassional overdecoration should not detract from the enjoyment of a novel striking for its vigour, wit and thoughtfulness." Comparing McNeil to novelists such as Roddy Doyle and Dorothy Allison, Women's Review of Books critic Maureen T. Reddy described McNeil's narrative voice as "powerful and unusual," and her prose "incandescently beautiful."
In McNeil's second novel, 2002's Private View, the author introduces Alex, a young woman living in an artsy enclave in East London. Her unsatisfactory marriage to a gay man named Conrad causes Alex to look back with regret at a former love affair, although amnesia brought about by a plane crash of which she was the sole survivor makes rekindling such memories next to impossible. Equally impossible—and frustrating—is Alex's ability to continue her creative work as an artist. Reviewing Private View in the Toronto Globe & Mail, T. F. Rigelhof noted that McNeil is successful at bringing "freshness and vibrancy to characters who are weak and muddled but struggling to rise above their predictability and low spirits," creating a work that is "both satirical and sensitive in its exploration of what passes for Bohemia nowadays." While describing the novel as "strung on a sense of unease," its plot "little more than a structure of disquiet," Times Literary Supplement reviewer Phil Baker praised Private View as "a memorable piece of reportage from the psychic spaces of the way we live now."
Regarding her decision to make the transition from travel writer to novelist in an interview posted on the Milkweed Editions Web site, McNeil commented: "Travel writing is description, and requires you to pay attention to landscape and to the detail of a place—how the currency notes smell for instance (in Central America they are musty and mouldy, a result of the humidity and poor paper they use). I always felt that it would be nice to use this detail, these observations, along with the strange situations one finds oneself in foreign places, in fiction." Noting that in fiction a writer can use that detail to "shape a different world," McNeil added that "Ever since I can remember I have been an observer and I have wanted to write, or somehow digest and interpret, what I see." In addition to novels, she has also woven her observations into a group of short stories collected as Nights in a Foreign Country. Praising the book in her Times Literary Supplement review, Joanna Griffiths called McNeil's metaphors "insistent and arrestingly implausible," and her stories "full of nostalgia for the time when explorers could tremble before the dark, untrodden contours of the globe."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, May 15, 1999, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Hunting down Home, p. 1669.
Globe & Mail, September 14, 2002, T. F. Rigelhof, review of Private View, p. D22.
New York Times Book Review, September 5, 1999, Katharine Whittemore, review of Hunting down Home, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly, May 17, 1999, review of Hunting down Home, p. 56.
Quill & Quire, April, 2001, Adair Brouwer, review of Nights in a Foreign Country, p. 32.
Times Literary Supplement, April 5, 1996, Lavinia Greenlaw, "Scraps of Leftover Kindness," p. 27; February 16, 2001, Joanna Griffiths, review of Nights in a Foreign Country, p. 23; July 26, 2002, Phil Baker, review of Private View, p. 21.
Women's Review of Books, Maureen T. Reddy, review of Hunting down Home, p. 16.*