Playing it safe with dangerous times

Playing it safe with dangerous times

By Kathleen Kent. Hachette. 326pp. $29.99.

What should a reader take away from historical fiction, from a novelist dwelling in the past and mining what has already happened to bring us a story? Surely it should not be just that, a story, but a work of substance and weight and depth that says something exhilarating about how we got to where we are now and in what directions we might like to go next. With the benefit of hindsight and from having access to a great trove of material, a historical novelist has the chance to turn things over and reveal fresh threads and meanings. The novelist's task in this regard is to tantalise, not to offer up another record.

Kathleen Kent, author of historical novel <i>The Outcasts</i>, which is her third novel since 2008.

Kathleen Kent, author of historical novel The Outcasts, which is her third novel since 2008.

Enter Texan Kathleen Kent, a New York Times best-selling writer of historical fiction who in her third novel since 2008, The Outcasts, focuses on a loose group of folk struggling to survive the 1870s, that precarious period immediately following the American Civil War.

Here was a country - two countries? - torn apart at the seams, deeply divided over race and identity.

<i>The Outcasts</i>, by Kathleen Kent.

The Outcasts, by Kathleen Kent.

The Outcasts is a quest for revenge and redemption. But only of sorts. It is constructed around chapters that alternate between two characters, and within the opening scenes it becomes obvious we are on a collision course - it is just a matter of who is going to live to see another day.

There is Lucinda, an intelligent, somewhat devious but determined prostitute who is fond of getting dosed up to the eyeballs on laudanum because she suffers from fits and "the palsy", though it might also relieve her from the spot of bother she is in - someone she may or may not be using, and who may or may not be using her. About Lucinda we are told that "even the dullards sized her up with telegraphic precision".

During a moment in a carriage, she watches a passenger "move discourteously away" and decides that "he must have been a Methodist as a Baptist would have spent the greatest part of the trip staring at her bosom".

Then we have Nate, a newly sworn-in Texas state policeman originally from Oklahoma. Principled and thoughtful, he is also a fine horseman and is dedicated to his wife and child, to whom he writes whenever he has the chance.

And we have McGill, a "goddamn kidkiller''. And finally we have some buried treasure, which might be the objective of the exercise.

Page after page we travel across the countryside. Horses are ridden, people are shot, and we are told about "gaters" and hard-luck towns and harsh but beautiful landscapes, all of which are described in prose that has clearly been worked and reworked until it is a polished product.

"In Oklahoma, the ground had always appeared to him to be resting. It was solid, packed firm under the hooves of countless horses, bison, and cattle, its ancient upheaval already done. Here in Texas, the ground first buckled and then plunged away, lowering to canyons or surging up into mesas, as though still in the act of formation."

Kent has a facility for depicting the idiom of the time and place and people. And there is a lot about guns: "Nate had to admire the wicked beauty of the brass, self-contained cartridges of the rangers' converted navy Colts. But he'd never give up his Dance cap-and-ball pistol. It had been given to him at the outbreak of the war by a man closer to him than his own father. He did, however, admit that he would gladly give over the old Henry in a scabbard at his side for a .44 Winchester as soon as he had the means to do so."

It is not as though there is nothing of value in The Outcasts, especially for those interested in the era; most likely those readers will be enticed by the careful attention to period detail. However, this novel is ultimately little more than an evocation - it draws forth, but it does not analyse or interpret or offer any kind of reflexivity. As a novel, a word that is after all derived from the Latin "novellus" meaning "fresh", The Outcasts does not illuminate so that we are able to see in new ways. It does not enlighten, intellectually or emotionally or spiritually. It settles on giving us mere adult entertainment.

What drives desperation? What pushes some of us to go beyond the law while others of us are devoted to it? How far would we go to survive, to protect what we love? What morals prevail in an almost moral-less society? These questions should be answered (at least they should find a response) in a denouement of power and - though this might be pushing the expectations a bit - grace.

We do not get this in The Outcasts.

When the final page is turned it is hard to escape the feeling that Kent has missed an opportunity to push the sex and violence and desperate relationships and moral ambiguities to breaking point, so that we might experience more deeply what she puts her characters through and the age they are in and the challenges they face.

In the end, what is the point of a safe tale about dangerous people in a dangerous time? Is that not a betrayal of what we know about the past, and of what we might conceive to be our future?

Nigel Featherstone is the author of the novella I'm Ready Now.

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