The White Bird Passes, Jessie Kesson. Chatto and Windus 12s 6d. Review by Nan Shepherd November 1958, Aberdeen University Review.
Many people in the North-East must have heard Jessie Kesson broadcast and have wondered whether the seductive husky voice, the bubbling immediacy, could be caught between the covers of a book. Here is the book; and the immediacy is here. The book has indeed a terrible authenticity – a case-history, a study of deprived childhood; but it is a case-history that every social worker ought to read, as a reminder that the ‘case’ may have its own unquenchable sources of life. the child of the study is verminous, hungry half-sarkit, but beloved; and if the purist objects that no mother could love the child she allows to exist in such conditions, Mrs Kesson knows that there is a nurture simply in the mother’s physical beauty, and in the ballads and tales she can tell – ‘You have the bes stories, Mam’
The child’s love for her mother is of a quality one does not forget. Overhearing two bystanders talking of a sudden death, Janie is struck with terror and sacrifices her coveted ‘shottie’ in the children’s game, and runs blindly home, to make sure that her mother is still there, is still alive. And when the ‘Cruelty Man’ has taken the child away, she waits in van at the Orphanage for her mother’s promised visit; when at last she comes, drained by disease of looks and of vitality – ‘I thought your Mam was awful bonnie, Janie,’ says another child accusingly. For Janie it is the end of innocence.
Jessie Kesson is indeed a better artist than she allows herself to believe
In the choice of such moments of revelation, Mrs Kesson shows herself an artist. She can turn a phrase too – the child ‘stood fiercely absorbing the dump’ – and her chorus of women in the Close has an almost hieratic quality. She is indeed a better artist than she allows herself to believe, in that she creates her milieu with a couple of touches and then adds further (and needless) detail to what is already secure. It is a narrow world, but immensely old; animal, but vehement with life. What Janie knew, even more than what Maisie knew, might well contaminate the clear spirit. It is the measure of Mrs Kesson’s achievement that it does not. We leave Janie knowing that she will escape from her horrible world; but the cost of the escape is not in the book.