Set in Yorkshire in the 1960s, A Kestrel for a Knave is a day in the life of Billy Casper. Billy is a boy about to leave school, destined for work in the pit, like his half-brother Jud. Billy comes from a broken home and lives in something close to poverty. Flashbacks pepper the account of his day, and give context to Billy’s release from everything, Kes. Kes is a kestrel hawk that Billy took from a nest and trained.
Hines’ story begins with Billy in bed, and ends in the same place, but everything has changed in the course of this day. It is a continuous narrative, without chapters, entirely from Billy’s viewpoint. The prose is raw and stark, which helps to build up the picture of Billy’s bleak childhood. The prose comes to life when Billy heads out into nature, which becomes his salvation. Billy wanders for miles and miles in order to escape the grimness of his lonely existence. At school he has no friends. At home he seems unloved. He is treated brutally by his brother, and suffers a lack of affection from Mrs Casper, his mother.
Billy is always in trouble at school. He is marked out by Mr Gryce, the authoritarian head master. Billy is mocked by his peers. It is hard to have sympathy with Billy at times, because he seems to be unlikeable, unloveable. If others give up on him, why might the reader be any different? Billy becomes interested in falconry, and as detailed in a flashback, he goes to a library to join. Only he can’t, as he believes no one will vouch for him, so he goes to a bookshop and steals a book. Hardly model behaviour. My view of Billy shifted through the only character with any sympathy for Billy, Mr Farthing. Billy is a boy of few words, but Mr Farthing entices Billy to speak in class about Kes, and in this soliloquy, something wonderful shines from Billy. Mr Farthing feels it, his classmates feel it, as does the reader. Billy somehow shifts between victim and fighter, and in this scene, I felt my allegiance shift. Within this day, is a long narrative about a game of football. Billy falls victim to the PE teacher, and is cruelly treated, which further served to reinforce my own mental fight for Billy.
The culmination of the day comes when Billy takes a decision that will cost him dearly. He does not place Jud’s bets, but spends the money on chips. The consequences are dire for Billy, way beyond what he deserves. Billy’s day ends as it began, in bed, but nothing is the same, and you are left with the feeling that hope has died.
A Kestrel for a Knave is a stark tale, both depressing and with hope, although that is again shattered at the end. The 2000 edition includes an afterword by Hines, reflecting on the 1968 novel. He says that he would write it without the dialect – the dialogue is thick with the abruptness of the Yorkshire accent – and also make Mrs Casper more affectionate towards her son. Both of these I would welcome. Ultimately, I feared for the future of Billy Casper, in his vicious cycle of poverty and neglect, which is an unpleasant and uncomfortable feeling to be left with. A Kestrel for a Knave is a powerful novel, with a rightful place in the school syllabus.
A Kestrel for a Knave is part of my Reading Challenge for 2016, and is a book that you should have read at school.