Paperback reviews: Includes Scout, Atticus And Boo: A Celebration Of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, by Mary Mcdonagh and Virginia Woolf in Manhattan, by Maggie Gee

Also Lucky Us, by Amy Bloom and The Hunt For The Golden Mole, by Richard Girling

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The Independent Culture


Two things strike you in this gathering of writers’ opinions, and those of the family and friends of Harper Lee. They are questions raised at the time of this book’s initial publication, five years ago, and refer to the impact of Lee’s extraordinary debut: why To Kill a Mockingbird “killed” Lee’s career. And what right do we have to Lee herself? Both these questions are raised repeatedly throughout this collection of reminiscences; in reference to the former, the writer and composer James McBride asks: “If you only have one solo to pay, then play the one solo. Why come back and dance again?” Lee’s debut achieved such a level of success, how could she ever match up to it?

However, this year sees the publication of Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to that 1962 debut, a bestseller before it’s even out. Biography has reared its head in relation to the book’s release: did Lee intend for this to be published in her lifetime? Was she railroaded into it? And to answer that second question, about our sense of ownership of Lee herself, the pastor of her local church, the Reverend Thomas Lane Butts, talks of how protective the local townspeople are of their famous resident, explaining that she’s a woman who simply wants her privacy, and that it’s highly unlikely her childhood friend Truman Capote helped her write her debut (a rumour that has long persisted).

To an extent, this book is built around an absence: not the absence of To Kill a Mockingbird, or even the absence of Lee herself, but the absence of explanation. It’s a testament to our need for explanations as to why she didn’t publish another novel before now, why she shunned the celebrity status offered her. Murphy’s readers of Lee’s world-famous book fill that absence with love and affection and respect.


Bloom’s novel about hardship and poverty seems almost inappropriately beautiful, when the story is so grim. But that’s where Bloom has been clever. For this is not the grim story that it first appears. Yes, young Evie is dumped by her mother on the doorstep of her biological father; yes, her father is a weak man who steals his children’s money; yes, Evie and her sister, Iris, flee to Hollywood as teenagers and are almost undone by it, and yes, tragedy follows them when fire destroys the tenuously settled family they have managed to become with Iris’s great love, Renee, and her adopted son, Danny. But this is such a convincing and even joyous celebration of alternative family, and the great love and support that that family set-up can offer. A gay make-up artist, Francesco, follows the sisters and protects them; their father’s last love, Clara, stays with them, too, and if Iris lets Evie and little Danny get on with it themselves, she finds that she, too, cannot let go of her extraordinary family.


Richard Girling’s history of conservation, explaining why protecting species is important, is a delight to read, even if the chapter devoted to the hunting of elephants and rhinoceroses is heart-breaking. He begins with the 19th-century hunters who revelled in the huge numbers of their kills. At the same time, the conservation movement was beginning, and he draws parallels with slavery, which do not seem obscene. He reserves his horror, though, for today’s poachers, and he spikes a few myths, too, about those creatures a little closer to home: urban foxes do not, he reiterates, hunt in packs. But it is Girling’s sense of responsibility to the world around that emerges most strongly.


I’m being a little harsh giving only two stars for a thriller that is well-written, even stylish in places. But this tale of the stalker Joe has a plot so utterly predictable that disappointment is the only possible reaction to it. Oh, for a twist hinted at by his “prey”, Guinevere Beck, a young woman who initially seems just as mad as he is, or the revelation that Joe is really female ... anything, please, to lift it. But, no: Joe’s sexuality is perverse, of course; he’s a loner; he judges people entirely by their film and book references. Whilst showing signs of stylistic experimentation, this book really has nothing new to say, and no psychological insight to give. Which is a pity, as one suspects Kepnes is capable of better.


It is interesting that two books released in the past 12 months which give a fictionalised portrait of Virginia Woolf, Gee’s own and Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister, both focus on a more public version of the writer, a stronger, more sociable and often manipulative woman, which takes us far away from the tragic image of her. Gee’s is a rather charming and often funny imagining, when her protagonist, the writer Angela Lamb conjures up Woolf in the New York Public Library, and has to look after her for the rest of her stay, even travelling on with her to Istanbul. If Woolf’s intellectual discipline is missing, what must have made her a fascinating companion is not, and Gee’s novel is a tribute to that aspect of her personality.