Scotland has produced no shortage of extremely fine authors. Jessie Kesson deserves to be counted amongst them, but we suspect is all-too-often overlooked. Black & White Publishing are to be congratulated on republishing her three most significant novels as new editions, thereby hopefully bringing her to the attention of a wider readership. The three novels are "The White Bird Passes", originally published in 1958, a tale of a young girl facing hardship and deprivation; "Glitter of Mica", originally published in 1963 and recounting the story of a young woman's search for identity in a rural parish in Aberdeenshire; and "Another Time, Another Place", reviewed here.
These days, if you think "Italian prisoners of war" and "Scotland" there's a tendency to immediately skip to the story of the Italian Chapel in Orkney. In fact there were prisoner of war camps throughout Scotland during World War Two, many housing Italian prisoners. "Another Time, Another Place", originally published in 1983, is the story of what happens when three Italians are billeted in a remote village in north-eastern Scotland during the summer of 1944 to serve as agricultural labourers. The story is told from the perspective of a nameless "young woman" who lives with her older farm-worker husband in the cottage next door to the one occupied by the Italians. Not everyone in the community welcomes the idea of living with men some view as the enemy amongst them, but for the young woman the three Italians represent a glimpse of an exotic world far removed from the narrow horizons and harsh reality of her crofting life. The story that emerges is one of a clash of cultures, of hope, and of desire in the midst of war.
Jessie Kesson's style is sparse. She presents a series of brief episodes or glimpses, beautifully observed and written, and the reader links them together, filling in gaps as appropriate. She's certainly not an author who weighs the reader down with excess verbiage, with detailed descriptions, or with extensive dialogue. The result is a slim volume, but a memorable and strangely haunting one. Perhaps it's the claustrophobic historical and rural setting, but for us this first encounter with Jessie Kesson's work was reminiscent of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's classic "Sunset Song". The title of "Another Time, Another Place" might well have been intended to reflect the character of its setting as seen through Italian eyes, but for us the passage of time since its publication means that the title could apply equally to the way the book transports the reader back to a world long gone, and immerses you in a community that now seems both remote and alien.