The Good People
(Atom, £12.99, 343 pages, hardback, published 2006.)
Storey is a boy who never grew out of his childhood games -- his imaginary
friends and the magic lands at the bottom of his garden have stayed
with him into adolescence and adulthood. So how will the Good People
who live under the forest of Arboria react to the arrival of WWII evacuees,
lumberjacks and property developers?
I'm in two minds about this book. Both minds agree that at least the
first hundred pages are regrettably dull. Perhaps it's the switch from
the Land of his 'Wanderers and Islanders' trilogy to the more familiar
landscape of twentieth-century England, but whatever it was about Steve
Cockayne's previous books that grabbed my attention, The Good People
lacks it. Perhaps it's that it takes that long for the child's play
of Kenneth and his brother -- and the two evacuee girls who are stationed
with them -- to develop into more full-blooded fantasy, although there
are one or two tantalising hints of what will follow.
It's at the point that fantasy and reality collide that my two minds
disagree. Arboria, with its unseen warrior people, Kenneth's gnomish
familiar Tommy Pelling, and of course the Good People, are all redolent
of Faerie, and my more cynical mind says that Arthur Machen was doing
this sort of ambiguous modern-day fairy story a long time ago, and rather
more deftly. What's more, around the halfway point Cockayne adds an
industrial twist to Kenneth's adventures with the Good People, which
I feel only reduces their ambiguity and reinforces the reading that
they're just how Kenneth's unhinged mind symbolises what's really happening
around him. The other thing is, Kenneth becomes too much an object of
embarrassment for my liking, and I found his story somewhat uncomfortable
reading -- not in an "uncanny" sense, but in the way one might
feel uncomfortable listening to the ramblings of an old man on the bus.
My other mind, however, is pleased to note that dark and unpleasant
things are lurking below the surface of green and pleasant Arboria.
Davy Hearn, the gardener's boy, does at least remain an ambiguous figure,
and whether he's a fairy abductee or just a local rival for the adolescent
Kenneth in the evacuees' affections, he livens up the book with his
threatening presence. The evacuees, Janny and Nadia, are also somewhat
ambiguous -- their backgrounds are left very vague, but I'm not sure
if that's deliberate or merely convenient. Kenneth himself, of course,
is an ambiguous narrator -- does he see "little people" or
is he mad? -- and beneath his own account of events it's possible to
read a variety of less savoury versions.
It takes a while to get going, but The Good People rewards persistent
readers. However, I believe Cockayne has done better, and will do again.