Unlike so many classics, Jessie Kesson’s semi-autobiographical The White Bird Passes seems not to have stood the test of time. Set in 1920s Aberdeenshire, the Scottish novelist’s first work centralises on the character of Janie, an 8 year old girl whose world is the personified lane she lives on until its inhabitants are forced apart by poverty. Originally published in 1958, Kesson’s writing style and romanticisation of the power of community is disappointingly lost on a modern, globalised reader.
Although proving popular to her contemporary audiences, the initial personification of the ‘Lane’, where the majority of the action is carried out, is overly quaint, verging on nauseating. Albeit presented as a third person perspective of a young child, the contrived imagery, combined with an abundance of superlative, lacks the eloquence of renowned modern writers and renders the syntax stilted and disjointed; it becomes an effort to read.
The suggestion of this novel’s content and style being stuck in the past is supported by its obvious appeal to an elderly, female audience. Dated references, dialogue reminiscent of Oliver Twist and the constant peppering of sentimental song lyrics would perhaps evoke nostalgia for an older demographic, but is old-fashioned and ineffective for a younger modern-day reader.
The inability to connect with Kesson’s enclosed life of Janie in a small village is perhaps attributable to the deterioration of community in the 21st century. As an isolated setting, the ‘Lane’ is not given the potential to be more than an endearing background, unable to inspire excitement in a 21st century audience. Though it is befitting of representing Janie’s ignorance to the rest of the world, the isolated Lane fails to cultivate interest over the plot of The White Bird Passes.
Unfortunately, due to the irritating nature of the nostalgic style, the cleverness of Kesson’s narrative perspective is easily overlooked. The third-person narrative voice that acts an extension of Janie’s consciousness allows for the inclusion of both her naivety but also the worrying reality of her poverty-stricken environment. Scenes of innocent street game politics slide seamlessly into mothers gossiping about ‘The Cruelty Man’ and recent suicides that seem to infiltrate Janie’s narrative consciousness without her, or the readers’, realisation. The over-exposure of Janie’s existence causes her to become obsessively anxious over the possible death of her mother and, somehow, Kesson manages to evoke a real sympathy for Janie’s paralysing paranoia.
Evidently a popular book upon publication, though now unable to complete with talented contemporary fiction writers, it is perhaps best that this text stays in the past.
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson.
(Published by Black&White Publishing)