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Kind One by Laird Hunt

Picking daisies on hell's front porch in the long ago.
As a fan of Laird Hunt, I perhaps should have seen the misdirection coming. The tagline on the front cover, "An Unforgettable Tale of Slavery in the American South," and the first paragraph, a dreamlike reminiscence of bed-time tales after working in the fields (I presumed cotton fields although admit in retrospect it was as likely a regular agricultural affair), set me off on the expectation of a tale of Colour and the unfortunate plight of a stooped and wise matriarch in the employ of a wicked plantation owner. Or something similar. 

Instead, something else. Instead, a vignette of the loss of a daughter in a freshly dug well. Instead, no-one mentions the colour of anyone's skin until the dénouement, the chapters where a mulatto boy goes in search of the mother who died giving birth to him. Instead, we have a tale of domestic slavery, of the abuse of a man of his child-wife, and of the daughters he had by another woman, a man who was intent on marrying his cousin until he found her husband less dead than rumours had led him to believe, and so he instead spirited away her daughter with  fraudulent promises. Ginny, the daughter, finds herself in a cabin, caring for girls only a few years younger than herself until her husband grows weary of her infecundity and turns his attention to his daughters. Ginny, in a daze of confusion, jealousy and relief, does nothing to stem his ardour and shield his daughters from his incestuous gaze.

In a strange echo of Fup, pigs enter the story as a dark metaphor, meaning what I don't know, but the visceral descriptions of slaughter and salting and eating are sincerely at odds with the comic descriptions of the making of blood sausage from a slaughtered hog in The Little Town Where Time Stood Still. They are the manifestation of Ginny's suffering, appearing dark and forbidding as her husband's intentions become clear. No collonaded mansion for her, only an incestuous pig farm. Her torments, both external and self-inflicted, don't end when her husband meets his end on the sharp point of a pig-sticker at the kitchen table, as the girls she failed to protect extract a terrible revenge for their own years of suffering, of immolation, at the hands of their parents.

It is a surprising book, a masterful weaving of narrative that slips small shocks between passages of contemplative and colloquial prose, heavily curtained ruminations on the past and tiny high windows on to the present. As an exploration of the abuse of power and of guilt and expiation, I struggle to find a comparator. Laird Hunt is fast becoming one of my favourite living American authors.


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