Day for Night by Jean McNeil

In Day for Night, Jean McNeil’s sixth novel, it is 2018. Writer and filmmaker Richard Cottar is approaching two significant milestones: he’s turning fifty, and he is soon to begin directing a movie about Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), the exiled Jewish German scholar and philosopher who killed himself in Spain rather than face deportation to France and what was sure to be a disagreeable fate at the hands of the invading Nazis. Richard’s wife, Joanna, a successful producer, has found investors to bankroll the film. The Cottars live a comfortable if hectic life in London with their two children, Nathan and Lucy, a life that becomes more hectic whenever Richard is working on a film and is grappling with endless details and the daily roller-coaster of triumph and crisis such a project entails. But Richard and Joanna have other concerns: both feel unsettled and anxious about the Brexit vote and suffer apprehension over how England’s impending departure from the EU will impact their lives and careers. Will they be forced to pull up stakes and establish themselves elsewhere? How will this affect their children, both born in England? Suddenly the future is uncertain, and they are resentful when the politics of Brexit throw obstacles in the way of their creative endeavours. In the novel’s first half Richard immerses himself in prep work for the film. But he’s oddly restless, not feeling quite himself, and even he can tell his behaviour is uncharacteristic: the upcoming birthday has thrown him into a state of turmoil, causing him to suffer disturbing premonitions of mortality. And he becomes irrationally fixated on Elliott, the attractively androgynous young actor who’s been cast as Walter Benjamin, an attachment that he struggles to keep from his wife, who’s balancing a variety of responsibilities while trying to keep the film’s financing in place. In the novel’s second half the focus shifts to Joanna, her own ambiguous relationship with Elliott, and the many challenges she faces as she guides the film toward a satisfying resolution.

“This is a book about the struggle to maintain some measure of self-determination amidst the barrage of forces that shape our lives in a chaotic world.”

Themes of exile and displacement permeate McNeil’s probing and geographically peripatetic narrative. Richard, from Kenya, and Joanna, an American, live in an England that, having taken a sharp turn to the political right, feels like it’s closing the door on the rest of the world. England is home, but they can’t avoid suspecting that, like Trump’s America, it’s growing mean-spirited and inward-looking and is no longer a welcome destination for immigrants. And so where does that leave them: Joanna, who prefers stability over uncertainty, and Richard, who, like Walter Benjamin, feels within himself the nostalgic push-pull of the voluntary exile and sees his own life as open-ended, liable to lead anywhere?

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McNeil tells us that the phrase “day for night” refers to a filmmaking technique whereby a nighttime scene is filmed during daylight hours. But the term takes on political overtones when it is applied to the choice that the British people have made with their vote: choosing darkness over light. In the end, this is a book about the struggle to maintain some measure of self-determination amidst the barrage of forces that shape our lives in a chaotic world. It is about artistic versus personal integrity, the many faces of love, and the challenge of remaining true to oneself while enduring unwelcome, unexpected disruptions. The notion that to some extent we are all exiles—that every one of us has been compelled to move on from where we were—is not new. But in this engrossing novel the author puts an intriguing twist on it. In Day for Night, Jean McNeil has written another in a series of powerful novels, one that draws the reader into a world that is at once familiar but rapidly becoming unrecognizable.

Jean McNeil is the author of 14 books of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and travel. She has twice been the winner of the PRISM International competition, and her work has been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Journey Prize, the National Magazine awards, and the Pushcart Prize. She is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Originally from Nova Scotia, she lives in London, England.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ ECW Press (May 25 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 280 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1770415750
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1770415751
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