The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

Life in the Lane…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Little Janie McVean has grown up on Lady’s Lane, a place ruled over by the women for most of the time, till the men come home from work and make it theirs for a while. No man comes home to Janie’s house though – or perhaps too many. For although Janie is too young to understand, the reader soon discerns that her mother, Liza, is a prostitute, along with some of the other women who live in the Lane. Janie doesn’t care – to her this is the only possible life, and though she has only one dress and often goes hungry and dirty and has nits in her hair, she’s happy. She has friends who are just like her and an interest in people of all sorts, and she loves to watch and listen to the women of the Lane. So when the Cruelty Man comes calling, to Janie the real cruelty is the threat of being taken away from the mother she adores, however bad a parent she may be.

Largely autobiographical, the book is set in the town of Elgin in the north of Scotland in the 1920s. Because it’s so well known to be based on Kesson’s own early life, there’s a feeling of reassurance for the reader – however painful it is to watch the neglect of this child, we know she survives and pulls herself out of the poverty of her beginnings. This makes it an easier, less tense read than it might otherwise have been, allowing the reader to find amusement, along with Janie herself, in the scrabbling existence of the women of the Lane and the hardships of Janie’s life. And Janie’s uncomplicated love for her neglectful, inadequate mother makes the reader see her with sympathetic eyes too, for, whatever Liza’s flaws may be, she loves her daughter.

Book 66 of 90

“About that doll you’re to get, I’ve got an idea it might be lying under some bits of things that’s come from America. Some bits belonging to my cousin’s bairn; just your size she is. And my word there’s some bonnie bits that will fit you. There’s a blue velvet frock for one thing. And a ribbon to go with it. I’m having a sort out just now. And when I’ve sorted out, you’re the queanie that’s going to get the fine surprise, or my name’s not Annie Frigg!”

Janie emerged as always, empty handed but full-visioned after an encounter with Annie, and with but one small doubt, how to share the delight of this new promise with Gertie, who could never see that something to look forward to, and something to dream about, were such glad things, even when you knew within yourself that they might never come true.

The writing is wonderful, managing to give a real flavour of the local speech without ever becoming hard for standard English speakers to understand. It’s told in the third person, in the language of adults, but the perspective comes almost entirely through the lens of eight-year-old Janie’s observant but sometimes uncomprehending eyes. So it’s up to the reader to fill in the blanks, and sometimes it’s in these spaces that the true pathos of Janie’s life is shown – a pathos Janie doesn’t feel at this young age. Her mother comes from a respectable and rather well-off family, and sometimes they visit Janie’s grandmother – another warm and loving, if occasional, presence in Janie’s life. But her grandfather’s reaction to Liza and Janie lets the reader know how badly the family feels Liza has disgraced them, and gives us pointers as to how she fell from here all the way down to the Lane. It’s a hard story, told with warmth and empathy and no bitterly pointed finger of blame from the adult Kesson.

Jessie Kesson

As well as her clear-sighted but sympathetic portrayal of the Lane and its inhabitants, Kesson also has an excellent eye for the landscape and nature of the area, and the ability to weave her fine descriptive prose seamlessly so that it becomes part of the story. Their mutual love of the countryside is part of the bond between mother and daughter.

The wind had begun to threaten the air. Passionately she had longed for the wind to come. To blow herself and the landscape sky high into movement and coherence again. Almost she had been aware of the wind’s near fierceness. Ready to plunge the furious hillside burns down into the Cladda river. To hurl the straws all over the dykes. To toss the chaff into the eyes of the protesting people, bending before it, flapping in their clothes like scarecrows. To sting the trees in Carron wood into hissing rebellion. To give the land some loud, loud cry, other than that of pain.

When the Cruelty Man takes Janie off to the orphanage, the story suddenly contracts, with years covered in just a few pages. This feels a bit disconcerting, but actually I think it probably works better than it would have if Kesson had devoted more time to that section. One gathers that her time there was neither wonderful nor terrible – she was just stuck in a kind of limbo until her life could resume. The real story is of the Lane, and of the love between child and mother that transcends the things that society determines to be good parenting. The ending is bittersweet – the tragedies of Janie’s young life tempered always by the knowledge that she will survive and rise. A beautiful book that challenges the reader to be slow to judge – to accept that love and even joyousness can sometimes be found in the darkest circumstances. Highly recommended.

Book 16 of 20

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 252…

Episode 252

And the amazing downward trend continues! The TBR has fallen by another 3 this week to the magic total of 200! Of course, since I’m achieving this miracle by reading all the short books, this means that the remaining 200 are all monsters, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it…

Here are a few more that should fall off the cliff soon…

Winner of the Classics Club Spin #24

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

The winning number is 18 and that means noir! I’m delighted to finally get to this one – the Classics Club Gods have chosen well! The idea is that this should be read and reviewed by the end of September and that should be well within the realms of possibility…

The Blurb says: When Philip Marlowe befriends down-on-his-luck veteran Terry Lennox he gets more than he bargained for. With Lennox’s wife dead and Lennox himself on the lam, Marlowe becomes the target for the local cops and a crazy gangster, while getting mixed up with alcoholic writer Roger Wade and his wife Eileen. Nothing is what it seems as Marlowe unravels the Wades’ scheme to expose the truth behind Lennox’s facade.

The most autobiographical of his novels, The Long Goodbye was considered by Chandler to be his best work. One of the preeminent examples of hard-boiled detective fiction, The Long Goodbye has been adapted for radio, film and television, and received the 1955 Edgar Award for Best Novel.

* * * * *

Crime Novella

Silent Kill by Jane Casey

Ooh, a Maeve Kerrigan novella! Thanks to Eva for giving me the heads up on this one. 😀 I’m adding it to my 20 Books of Summer list since a space suddenly appeared when I abandoned All We Shall Know at the 11% mark on the grounds that the world is quite miserable enough without books like this adding to it. Maeve will cheer me up!

The Blurb says: A teenage girl is killed on a London bus. The case should be simple. The bus was full of witnesses, and there are cameras everywhere.

A hunt for a killer…
But the more DC Georgia Shaw and her colleagues Maeve Kerrigan and Josh Derwent delve into the crime, the more elusive the answers become.

A case that spirals out of control…
It seems impossible that no one saw anything, but soon the leads run cold. Will they uncover what really happened, or will the killer get away with murder?

For fans of the Maeve Kerrigan series, this is a story with a difference. Told from Georgia’s point of view, we see Maeve and Josh from the outside…like you’ve never seen them before.

* * * * *

Fiction

Up the Junction by Nell Dunn

Another one from my 20 Books list. I’ve seen the film of this but probably a decade or so after it came out, since it would have been far too adult for me at the time. The film was one of those that kinda defined London in the ’60s, at least for those of us who didn’t live there. I only discovered it started out as a book when Madame Bibi reviewed it

The Blurb says: The girls – Rube, Lily and Sylvie – work at McCrindle’s sweet factory during the week and on Saturday they go up the Junction in their clattering stilettos, think about new frocks on H.P., drink tea in the café, and talk about their boyfriends. In these uninhibited, spirited vignettes of young women’s lives in the shabby parts of South London in the sixties, money is scarce and enjoyment to be grabbed while it can.

* * * * *

Scottish Classic

The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

And the penultimate book of the 20! (Will I make it through them all in time? It’s possible. But then it’s also possible that I could bungee jump from the top of Big Ben…) I know nothing about either author or book except that it shows up from time to time on lists of Scottish classics…  

The Blurb says: Set in the backstreets of a Scottish city in the 1920s, The White Bird Passes is the unforgettable story of a young girl growing up in ‘the Lane’. Poor, crowded and dirty – but full of life and excitement – the Lane is the only home Janie MacVean has ever known. It is a place where, despite everything, Janie is happy. But when the Cruelty Man arrives, bringing with him the threat of the dreaded ‘home’ – the orphanage that is every child’s nightmare – Janie’s contented childhood seems to be at an end.

A gritty and moving portrayal of a young girl facing up to hardship and deprivation, written with warmth, humour and insight, Jessie Kesson’s classic autobiographical novel is widely regarded as her finest work.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?