Having got my craving for chick lit out of my system for another year, I have been reading ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ by Barry Hines, one of the grittiest books I’ve read in a while. Set in South Yorkshire in 1968 over the course of a single day, fifteen year old Billy Casper finds Kes, a kestrel hawk, who he learns to take care of and confide in. It’s an accurate and poignant portrait of life in northern England at that time (so my mother tells me) and although the book has a very specific setting, it has timeless qualities and themes that would still resonate with disaffected youth today.
Authentic Yorkshire dialect is a notable feature of the language used in the book. Interestingly, in the afterword Hines wrote in 1999, he says: ‘If I was writing it today I wouldn’t use dialect. It can be irritating to the reader and whatever methods you try, you don’t capture the voice on the page.’ However, I still think it’s an essential feature for conveying the atmosphere and the setting of the book although I can imagine it’s probably more difficult to read for people who are unfamiliar with Yorkshire accents.
As well as the lyrical descriptions of Billy’s interaction with Kes, Hines’s depiction of poverty and social deprivation in northern England is an eye-opener, particularly with regards to Billy’s treatment by his family and teachers at school. For all its existing faults, it certainly makes you realise how much has changed for the better in the British education system over the last forty years or so. Some may disagree, but I think it is hard not to feel sympathetic towards the character of Billy in spite of not being particularly likeable at the beginning, as his actions and outlook are really just a consequence of his difficult circumstances.
If you enjoy ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’, I would also recommend ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’ by Alan Sillitoe with its similarly gritty depiction of working-class northern England in the mid-twentieth century. ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ is an essential read which will renew your faith in human compassion.