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The Kindly Ones
by Cliff James
Lethe Press £10.55
ALTHOUGH framed within the dystopian fictional tradition, The Kindly Ones is, in many ways, an analysis of contemporary US and indeed Western societies.
Set in an economically and environmentally devastated part of North America, Cliff James’s minutely observed second novel plots the trajectories of two very distinct groups of internal refugees.
The first is an extended family unit, the Manns, both oppressed and inspired by a degraded version of messianic Christianity. The elder son, Enoch, has assumed the leadership role, albeit only with the support of the steely mother.
This is a highly hierarchic unit within which the role of the sole daughter is that of a servant to the others.
The second is a more heterogenous, albeit broadly non-religious, group of three females: Fran, Ky and Rhea who adopt Lugh, a near-mute boy after the traumatic death of his brother.
The two groups’ journeys through windswept landscapes and a vast, brooding forest as well as the psychological trauma of what has been experienced is a pressure-cooker prelude to their encounter.
Both sets of migratory humanity arrive at a collection of semi-inhabitable houses, one part of which is already inhabited by the decidedly gothic and insidious Father Ambrose and his dead friend, the Gentleman.
The two groups begin to occupy different dwellings and cautiously dialogues between the respective memberships begin and relationships start to form, albeit hesitantly and precariously.
James has a well-attuned ability to create character nuances, most obviously at first among the seculars, but increasingly of the various Mann siblings as their differing reactions to what they hear about the reality-based world are absorbed and reflected upon.
Some of these interactions are very touching, whilst others starkly exposure the massive rupture between the two traditions on show.
Marion Mann’s reaction to Rhea’s childlessness is raw and unyielding:
“So you don’t have children.” This time, it was not so much a question as an accusation. “Aye, thought so. If you did, you’d know.”
“Know what dear?”
“What love is. Real love.”
These individual centrifugal forces coalesce as each group seeks to ensure that their value system is protected and, in the case of the senior Manns, dominant.
Violence inevitably erupts and the row of houses spirals into a full-on conflict zone.
The Kindly Ones by Cliff James, Lethe Press is an extremely well-written account of the damage done to a society that cannot reconcile faith and reason at an individual or aggregate level.
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