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.
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.
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…
Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which commissioned this review and published it on 11 January 2014