Laird Hunt's "Kind One" is a mesmerizing novel of sin and expiation that plumbs the depths of human depravity and despair, yet hints at the possibility of redemption for those "life-kicked" souls who acknowledge their guilt and turn away from the provocation to sin. Set in Indiana and Kentucky, the novel moves back and forth in time from just after the Civil War up to 1930. Propelled by several diverse voices at its beginning and end, the novel proper is narrated from the point of view of Ginny Lancaster, an old woman looking back on the dark "shadow" of events from her youth that haunt her still.
She begins: "Once I lived in a place where demons dwelled. I was one of them. I am old and I was young then, but truth is this was not so long ago, time just took the shackle it had on me and gave it a twist."
As her story unspools, 14-year-old Ginny marries her mother's second cousin to escape the boredom of her Indiana home. She's lured from her parents -- from her dour father, grievously wounded in the Civil War and now wearing a wooden foot, and her fawning, timid mother -- by Linus Lancaster's talk of his gabled mansion with many columns on 400 acres of rich bottomland in Kentucky. She arrives to find his "piece of paradise" is fragrant fertile land, overseen by three black slave boys, but there's no mansion, only a rough cabin, tended by Zinnia and Cleome, two black girls younger than she is.
Out of loneliness and disappointment, Ginny befriends the girls. They make daisy chains and crowns, pick mushrooms and play at being faeries. They help each other withstand Linus' accelerating cruelties, but as time passes, their relationship changes. Six years after Ginny's arrival, the land now sullied by the pigs he's raising, Linus turns his lustful attentions to the black girls. Ginny is unable to leash her fury at him and at her own complicity in his evildoing, and she turns her rage upon her former playmates. Maltreatment begets revenge, and darkness engulfs them all.
Like Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain," the novel is full of portents, dreams and stories -- odd, supernatural tales that foretell the troubles to come, and the characters undertake journeys on which they meet people who provide both physical and material succor. Hunt's language, like Frazier's, is Biblically-tinged and spare. Fifty years after the events that routed them from Linus' "four-square kingdom," Zinnia feels "the past sitting on my chest, its black eyes peering down at me." Laird Hunt's compelling fifth novel is one that will resonate long after you turn its last page.
Kathryn Lang is a freelance editor and book reviewer who for 20 years was senior editor at SMU Press in Dallas.