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The Good People

by Steve Cockayne

(Atom, £12.99, 343 pages, hardback, published 2006.)

Review by John Toon

cover scanKenneth 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.

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