Books: The memoir of a mockingbird who wouldn't sing
The Mockingbird Next Door, by Marja Mills, Penguin, €20
Published 25/08/2014 | 02:30
Marja Mills met Harper Lee in 2001, when she was commissioned by the Chicago Tribune to produce a feature on the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird. She got along well with Lee's 90-year-old sister, Alice, and Harper wasn't too rude to her, so Mills saw an invitation to move next door to them both and write a book about their private world.
The Mockingbird Next Door is a memoir of the 17 months Mills spent in Monroeville, Alabama. It's a slow town, mostly given over to the Mockingbird tourist industry, and not a great deal happened to Mills or Harper Lee in that time. It's fair to say, in fact, that nothing happened, but Mills was never without her notepad. She and Lee took some drives, and fed the ducks. Duck-wise, "there was always a little something new to observe and talk over. A duck might have gone missing. Usually the duck in question would reappear."
By the end of the book, Mills has mastered the art of the non-event. One evening, she and Lee park their cars in the driveway at the same time: "Nelle got out of the car and gave a small wave. I stuck my arm out the car window and waved back. She began to take a few careful steps my way. I turned off the ignition and got out." The tension is palpable; will a shot ring out? "How are you?" asks Lee, and they drink some coffee.
We are occasionally jolted back into consciousness: Lee's favourite writer is Thomas Babington Macaulay, her favourite television programme is Yes, Prime Minister.
It's puzzling stuff for the reader who assumes that Mills might have something to tell us. But there is no glue to hold the material - or absence of material - together except for the repeated claim that Lee gave her "blessing" to this dreary project. Mills, Lee apparently told her friends, was "a contradiction in terms - a class-act journalist".
The puzzle deepens: why would a woman as shrewd as Lee choose to share the closing scenes of her life with a journalist at all? The answer is that she didn't: Lee, who had a stroke soon after Mills left Monroeville, has written to the press to say that she neither authorised or cooperated with the book, whose existence has made her "hurt, angry, and saddened but not surprised".
This revelation breathes some life into these anodyne pages. It all makes sense: Mills was not a friend but a spectator. The Mockingbird Next Door is no more feelgood than Henry James's brilliantly creepy The Aspern Papers, in which a "publishing scoundrel" befriends two elderly women in the hope of extracting materials for a forthcoming biography. Were Mills a better person she would not have written this book; were she a better writer she would have written it with more imagination.
Ian Hamilton's In Search of J.D. Salinger is a thrilling account of his failure, as a hopeful biographer, to gain access to Salinger, and the essayist Janet Malcolm has made a career out of anatomising the dishonesty between biographers and their subjects. As it is there is only one hint that she was working on the sly "Oh, here we go," Lee snaps as Mills pulls out her notepad one day. A few more sentences like this and her book might have got off the ground.
There is one other revealing moment. Mills and Lee are driving home after watching a video of Capote, when "in my mind's eye an image flashed of us in the car. Then I saw us from a greater distance, as if this were all a movie".
What a comedown: Lee, who began her life living next door to Truman Capote, ended up living next door to Mills. It's one way to kill a mockingbird.
© Sunday Telegraph