A Kestrel for a Knave – Barry Hines

Posted on January 16, 2012

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Chosen as the first book for Nexus Book Group‘s “Northern” Book Group way back in December, “A Kestrel for a Knave” follows young Billy Casper at a pivotal point in his life as he prepares to leave school, but in doing so finds and rears a young kestrel..

Unlike most of the group, I found Billy’s character to need a bit of a shake. His troublesome nature matched up with how he is ignored by those around him, including his mother do add layers to Billy, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that he performs petty acts of effectively, vandalism, just for the sake of something to do, such as where he pushes the shopkeeper’s ladder at the beginning of the novel. At least Kes gives him some purpose, and attention in class – the kind of attention he most likely craves and therefore uncomfortable with. His passion and interest – the only thing he devotes attention to – he should be using, not shying away from.

Billy’s strengths lie in his connection with nature. He is resourceful – although his methods leave a lot to be desired, he does manage to obtain and learn a book on falconry to train up Kes. He is observant – just look at Hines’ description of what Billy sees with nature, and especially the detail observed by Billy as he walks into town at the end of the novel. Little  vignettes describing minute eye-catching detail. Intrinsically, there is nothing stopping Casper from succeeding in life.

Which, I suppose this is my main issue with the novel, that ultimately, Casper is bound by his situation, like Jud before him, and probably countless others after him. The chains of time weigh down on Casper, and his destiny to work in the pit. This is explicitly referred to with regard Jud’s bet that wasn’t placed.  Jud comments that the winnings would have been a week’s wages. Billy’s failure to place the bet firmly sets him on a path that will carry him to the mine. He had placed the bet, it wouldn’t have been about money – perhaps his passion and enthusiasm for Kes might have carried him onto a different path.

Language wise, the book retains much of the Yorkshire dialect that contributes to its Northern setting. Hines isn’t afraid to use slang, indeed use of the dialect seems to be a hallmark of his work, the dialect adding to the Sheffield setting for ‘Threads’ in later years, for example. Hines’ prose is very evocative of the small town it is set in, descriptions are vivid, and the almost sepia tinge of proceedings gives way to a Technicolor portrayal of nature when Billy is roaming around. However, it can be very technical when describing aspects of falconry.

In retrospect this very much a transitional piece. Mining isn’t a way of life now, and headmasters like Gryce, the cane, Mr. Sudgen – well maybe not him – so much of this society has changed and moved on. A Kestrel for a Knave manages to remain timeless, bleak, yet well-crafted.

The Fiction Stroker gives this four strokes out of five:

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Posted in: Book Club