Breaking the past, escaping the past

What to say, what to say? The perennial problem of blogging – but sometimes, an entry writes itself, and tonight is one of those nights, because I’ve been reading Steve Cockayne’s marvellous, green-haunted novel, ‘The Good People’.

It’s about a boy called Kenneth Storey, who – it seems – either has a rich fantasy life, or is living in a very traditional kind of children’s book, one that might have been written by a less talented disciple of Rudyard Kipling sometime in the 50s.

For the most part, it’s set in the 40s. In the distance, there is World War II and the Blitz; and so Kenny and his brother retreat into a faerie dream of rural life. The land of Arboria opens itself up, first to them, and to young evacuees Janny and Nadia.

But, in fiction, nowhere can be Paradise; drama needs conflict, and that conflict comes as first Robert, and then Janny and Nadia begin to grow up. As ever, maturity brings complexity; Kenny sees Arboria change to accommodate that complexity, but also slowly begins to realise that, beyond a certain point, such accommodation is impossible.

And that’s all I’m going to say about the plot – to find out the rest, you’ll have to read the book yourself. Brutally honest in its evocation of the rot attendant on curdled innocence, and the ways in which growth can become an existential threat to such willed ignorance, ‘The Good People’ dissects such escapism with a relentless, surgical determination.

But it would be wrong just to say that the book is just a condemnation of fantasy. It’s also an elegy, for a certain kind of England; a place where there was in fact no such thing as fantasy, but rather a living, breathing folklore, passed on from generation to generation and springing from a very specific kind of relationship with place.

The decline of Kenny’s grandmother becomes a way of thinking about the end of that kind of deep-rooted identity. She can be seen as a keeper of ancient wisdom; but, as the book progresses, she falls into decay, senility and at last a slow and gentle death.

Kenny is unable to receive more than a few scraps of knowledge from her, and that which he does receive – misunderstood, largely contextless – poisons him. Modernity demands movement. The kind of deep-rooted, entirely place-specific maturity that she represents, and that he aspires to, is no longer viable.

Robert exemplifies this need for mobility. He can only grow up by disappearing first to a job in a neighbouring town, and then – through call up – to fight battles in foreign lands. Kenny – who refuses to leave his ancestral home, his ancestral place, and who understands Robert’s departure as a kind of enslavement – is left without a viable path to adulthood.

Kenny’s curdled innocence isn’t just a function of an unhealthy relationship with fantasy; it’s also rooted in the modern world’s rootlessness. In the end, that insecurity claims Robert too, as the family business that he has inherited collapses in the face of international competition. His version of the local is just as fragile as Kenny’s, although its fall is far less destructive.

More than just a story about a willed refusal to mature, ‘The Good People’ can be read as a criticism of the conditions which make a refusal to change beyond a certain, personally defined point dangerous.

Climaxing with senility and decay, containing murder and loss, the book uses a final, backwards view of an entirely fractured Faerie to condemn a modernity that makes deeply rooted investment in the past a killing impediment rather than a source of joy and security.

Of course, that’s only one, partial reading of the book. It’s too complex, too subtle to resist easy, reductive definition. So, there’s only one thing to do – go and check it out yourself!

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