A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines

I wasn’t even aware this was a book until recently! I saw the film when I was quite young and always remembered it because of the tale it wove about a creature I love and because of the rather memorable DVD cover of Billy giving the finger. It took me a mere two days to finish it – it’s not very long at all – and I am very glad that I decided to buy it and read it.

Hines himself describes the book as ‘a slim book about a no-hoper and a hawk’ and I couldn’t sum it up better than that.

The novel begins in a dark bedroom where Billy Casper, the main character, and his older half brother, Jud are sleeping in bed. It’s not made particularly clear whether or not Jud is Billy’s full brother are not – there is one reference to him definitely not being but the reader is initially left to decide for themselves. As the two characters lie asleep in bed the alarm suddenly goes off. Billy searches for it with his eyes tightly shut but Jud eventually manages and resets it till a later time with an exclamation of ‘bloody thing’. Billy tells him that he needs to get up or he’ll be late for work – here we learn of Jud’s nature when he is nasty to Billy and swears at him. When he eventually gets up he cruelly turns the light on and takes Billy’s jumper. He refuses to reset the alarm to a later time for Billy and fails to turn the light out. By this point, Hines has clearly established and the two don’t like each other and that Jud is frankly a twat. We are also introduced to the colloquialisms and dialect of North Yorkshire – I was rather delighted at the written version of ‘Gi’o’er’ being a Northerner myself. Seeing such thing in novels is rare as often dialects just don’t sound or look right on the page when written – Hines had clearly made an attempt to involve as many as possible within reason with some, as he put it in the afterward ‘Middle class’ expressions that were more  ‘understandable’.

Billy, now awake, gets up and goes outside into a small shed where we are introduced to Kes – the kestrel that he has trained – as he chatters on to her and feeds her. A flashback of how Billy got Kes then occurs – whilst exploring the countryside near his estate; he spies a Kestrel pair taking food to and from the nest. He becomes instantly smitten with them and lies under a hedge watching. After speaking to the farmer about them – who’s initial reaction to Billy being there is ‘bugger off’ but when he realises he is interested in the bird he talks to him awhile when Billy questions him about falconry only to discover he could learn all he needed to know from a book. Billy then goes to his local library and encounters a very unhelpful woman who won’t allow him to take out a book as he is not a member – nor will she allow him to just read it in the building itself. As a result, he goes to a bookstore and steals one. When reading the book later that evening, we are introduced to his mother who clearly isn’t all that bothered about him or what he does as she is preoccupied with getting ready to go out. She shows Billy no affection or even interest at all apart from when she questions him about whether or not her stockings are laddered. On impulse, Billy then goes and steals a Kestrel chick – he has to climb a ruined wall of an old monastery to get to the nest which is atop this wall and we are then brought back the present.

As the novel continues we experience school life for Billy where teachers are strict and abusive – as they were in that era – and give him a hard time for nothing. From what we see at school, we mainly see Billy getting shouted at, caned, getting into fights and getting bullied by his PE teacher in a ‘typical’ PE session where he is placed in goal for not having the proper kit. It soon becomes clear that Billy is a regular troublemaker and has been involved with the law. He steals on several occasions but on the whole his commitment to training his hawk has stopped his bad behaviour. When dozing in a lesson a much more kindly teacher called Mr Farthing has him recount something about himself which is a fact – the lesson is about Fact and Fiction. After being encouraged by his classmates he proceeds to talk about Kes; how he trained her, the equipment he uses and how he felt when he flew her free for the first time. Mr Farthing comes to watch Billy flying her with the lure later that day and they talk about the hawk much afterwards. Sadly, this teacher is the only person who takes an interest in Billy and his hawk and mirrors his enthusiasm for the creature. For a boy to train a hawk requires patience and intelligence – this is never acknowledged by anyone bar this teacher.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel because of Billy’s pure love for the hawk who he strongly declares is not his pet nor tame – she is trained but still wild. He clearly gets a thrill from the fact he has trained this bird and has her all to himself – in his small world he has a rough time at home and at school and she is his only enjoyable escape from all of that. It is sad in that Billy never gets the acknowledgement or attention he deserves but I fully shared his love and respect of the bird.

This novel is a strong insight to lives of many people in the North in the mid to late 1900s – the pits, the estates, the dirt, the people, the education and so on. My parents have told me many a time that that was what it was really like and they can strongly relate to many aspects of the film. My dad even commented that he knew several Billy Caspers…Overall, this book is about a boy who has nothing going for him but finds something in training a kestrel chick. One film advertisement I came across commented: ‘They beat him. They deprived him. They ridiculed him. They broke his heart. But they couldn’t break his spirit’ I couldn’t agree more – A beautiful and heart-wrenching novel.

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