Slavery in the South seems like an exhausted subject, but Laird Hunt’s Kind One feels fresh. In it, the sadistic Linus Lancaster tries to build Paradise out of dirt and pigs. After his wife Ginny murders him, their female slaves Zinnia and Cleome take over the farm, lock Ginny in the shed, and torture her any number of ways.
The violence, incest, and corruption are Faulknerian. So too is the use of multiple narrators. But Hunt works a few tricks of his own. Magic shined in his last novel, Ray of the Star. In this one, it returns in darker forms, most notably in the slave Alcofibras’s legends of black bark and troubled onions as well as in the Shakespearean ghosts who demand Ginny’s attention.
Both Ginny and her female slave are tied together by their scarred ankles: “Once you have had the shackle on you it never comes off.” But if the novel was only about the ways they are bound by violence, it would have little new to offer. More interesting is the spool of purple thread. It begins as an off-hand gift from Ginny to Zinnia. Zinnia later uses it to help Ginny escape from the shed. Eventually, it becomes the impetus for something like reconciliation. The thread suggests the real, often unacknowledged complexity of social relations in slave times.
A different sort of thread runs through epigrams preceding each narrator’s section. They are drawn from The Tempest. The first four come from Caliban’s curse of Prospero, which is chopped up and rearranged thusly:
Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me
And after bite me,
Sometime am I
All wound with adders who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness
But they’ll nor pinch,
Fright me with urchin-shows, pitch me i’ the mire
Nor lead me, like a firebrand, in the dark
But for every trifle are they set upon me”
The epigrams turn Hunt’s first four narrators into Calibans, coarse and eloquent, low and great, bullies and victims, messes of contradictions. The rearrangement binds them together, but it also suggests a way to understand the book’s progress: the repeated “sometime” suggests how the past tortures its recollector, while the repeated “but” suggests that the curse can be resisted.
Really, it does not seem to touch the fourth narrator, Cleome’s appropriately named son Prosper. He lacks the bitterness of his predecessors. He is dedicated both to his Aunt Zinnia, whom he follows into Kentucky without hesitation, and to his mother, who died in childbirth and whose gravestone he means to cut. His quiet goodness strengthens the likelihood of eventual healing.
The fifth epigram quotes Trinculo: “Here; swear then how thou escapedst.” It seems to confirm the curse’s end. This section’s narrator, Lucious, has never lived in the South. He must find it as strange as Trinculo finds Prospero’s island. Yet Lucious is compelled less by the land than by Ginny, whom he loves hopelessly, despite her sins. Near the end, the book seems almost Christian. All that’s left is for Ginny to open her heart so her sins can be washed away and she can live anew. But she’s tried it before. At a baptism, she received judgment: “the water had walked away.” Others may hope for fresh starts. They may even get them. For her, though, nothing can be undone. The shackle remains.