Monday, July 28, 2008

A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines

I read this through in two snaps. This is after I had started reading it and parked it because I kept stumbling over the dialect; some kind of cockney. But in this second attempt 'nowt' didn't seem any stranger than my Jamaican 'nutten' and I found myself cruising through a tender and beautiful novel about fifteen year old Billy Casper whose life adds up to nothing but misery until he finds a hawk.

A falconry hobbyist demonstrates one aspect of training a kestrel

Poverty and a dysfunctional family are the major blights on Billy's life. He is cold all the time from not having adequate heating at home and from not having warm clothes. His mother cares about him as much as she cares about a row of pins. His brother, Jud cares even less, and his dad left home a long time ago. At school, he is the butt of everyone's jokes and he is the easiest person for everyone to pick on, students and teachers alike. He is good at nothing, except petty theft (called 'nicking' in the novel) and has very few interests except that he pays attention to everything wild (fat lot of good that will do him, whose likely prospect is down in the mining pit at worst, or carpentry or any other 'manual job' at best. He is quite jaded about life and work, he pretty much doesn't care about anything.

But this hawk (a kestrel) that he finds infuses him with a passion that he's never experienced before. The process of nurturing and training Kes brings out the fine, the noble, the manly (or godly if you like) in Billy Casper, the knave.

The most memorable part of the novel for me is when Billy and his teacher Mr. Farthing are trying to analyse what is it about the kestral that is so appealing. The deliberation about its traits is subtly comical because of the mismatch in inellect between the two, but it's beautiful because they find common ground, and in his inadequate, closed cockney, Billy is able to articulate what many well educated people never come to appreciate.

What they say about the hawk is that there is something about it that commands respect. Something that compels the whole world to be still, to be silent and take note of it. This is impotant to Billy whose daily fare is humiliation. But what is it about the kestrel? Mr. Farting says:

I think it's a kind of pride, and as you say independence. It's like an awareness, a satisfaction with its own beauty and prowess. It seems to look you straight in the eye and say,'who the hell are you anyway?' It reminds me of that poem by Lawrence, 'If men were as much men as lizards are lizards they'd be worth looking at.' It seems to be proud of itself.

I am a tad disappointed in the ending. I don't know, but it seems to be fashionable among contemporary writers to project a dismal, existential outlook about life. If Kes comes to signify meaning for Billy, why does Barry Hines have Kes die and have Billy go back to a cold bed as in the beginning of the novel? Or has the experience with Kes so transformed Billy that he is now larger than life? There is not much indication of this based on his lousy attitude at the job interview. I am just sad that Kes died, and I'm vexxed with Barry Hines for making me bawl and blubber over it without showing me that Billy will find his way after this.

A Kestrel for a Knave is has been adapted into an award winning film.

Technorati Tags:
, ,

No comments: