A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines
For once, our group was united – everyone who managed to finish the book really enjoyed this novel, a much-loved modern classic from 1968, filmed as ‘Kes’ in 1969 directed by Ken Loach. As is often the case where we read books which we all loved, together with, a good turn out for book group, our discussion ended all too soon as we were all in agreement!
The story is of young teenager Billy Casper, raised in poverty in a Yorkshire mining village. He lives with his uncaring mother and his bullying, older half-brother Jud, who works down the mine. Billy doesn’t want to end up there, but doesn’t know at the outset what he does want to do when he leaves school soon either. Billy has a reputation for being cheeky and naughty, being light-fingered, but he also loves being out and about in nature, watching birds flying free. One day he finds a kestrel’s nest, and he takes one of the young birds to train, it’s a transformational act – well nearly – he pilfers a book on falconry, which Jud discovers him with…
‘A Falconer’s Handbook. Where’s tha got it from?’
‘I’ve lent it.’
‘Nicked it, more like. Where’s tha got it from?’
‘A shop in town.’
‘Tha must be crackers.’
‘How’s that mean?’
He looked at a picture, then slapped it shut.
‘I could understand it if it wa’ money, but chuff me, not a book.’
There are many memorable scenes in the story, ones of bullying – by Jud and some nasty teachers, including a terrifying scene in the showers after games (Brian Glover making his acting debut as the sadistic sports teacher in the film). There’s also the time when Billy tells his story of training Kes in class, captivating his English teacher, who comes to see him fly the bird one lunchtime, (we talked about how safeguarding would prevent that these days!). And there are superb descriptions of nature which makes the text soar with Billy’s kestrel.
Hines peppers his text with some Yorkshire dialect, but it’s mostly words like thi/tha and n/owt, easily understood, and it gives a real flavour of the accent without being incomprehensible. Between that and the descriptive passages I was completely won over by Hines’ prose.
This story of a boy who manages to find beauty in life, if only for a short while, is a true modern classic. It manages to be uplifting yet is ultimately terribly sad; its themes are timeless, its appeal ageless. Why I’ve not read this book before is a mystery, and although I’ve never seen the film in its entirety, it was terribly familiar to me, indeed I expect everyone of an age or from Yorkshire has at least heard of the film. An absolutely brilliant novel. (10/10)
Source: Library. Barry Hines, A Kestrel for a Knave (1968) Penguin paperback, 208 pages. Buy at Blackwell’s (affiliate link)