The Hippo


May 24, 2020








The Kindness
By Polly Samson (Bloomsbury, 290 pages)

By Jennifer Graham

The protagonists of Polly Samson’s The Kindness sound like they belong to the House of Duggar, the “19 and counting” reality-show family where, save for the mother, everyone’s name starts with a J.
Julian and Julia — was this really necessary?
But don’t write off The Kindness for excessive alliteration or a too-earnest attempt to make the couple seem existentially one. It is an achingly beautiful love story, satisfyingly complex, that at times seems more poetry than prose. It is not a surprise to learn that the author’s writing credits include not only short stories but also song lyrics.
Samson’s gift of language is evident in the opening sentence: 
Lucifer flew well for her in the fading light, falling through the sky when she summoned him and away again towards a great bruising sunset.
Lucifer is no fallen angel, but a hawk that belongs to Julia’s abusive husband. She’s taken the bird out to dinner (a rabbit he must catch himself) on the hill where she first met Julian, a man eight years younger, who’d fallen in love with her upon sight, as if “he’d summoned her from the depths of his hangover. Wished her into being. Ta-dah!”
Within a chapter, Julia’s husband had arrived home unexpectedly and cruelly driven her from the house, and before we can recover from that, Samson delivers the reader eight years in the future where Julia and Julian had moved in together at his childhood estate, and had a child, a girl named Mira.
Mira, however, had taken catastrophically ill — cancer is implied — and now all Julian has left of her — and his family — is a single tiny shoe that had been caught in a hammock. Julia, too, has vanished, leaving behind little but “an old man of twenty-nine before the double hit of nicotine and coffee” and a dog that lives by the door in a constant “state of dashed optimism.”
What happened to Mira unfolds slowly, as Julian trudges forlornly through memories. What happened to Julia is the bigger question that remains until the point of view changes more than halfway through the book — and even then, the answers are so subtle that they may be lost on the casual reader. Those who persevere untangle a mystery. Samson plots like Dan Brown but describes like Longfellow.
People wandering through town “with proud bellies” appear “slow and drunk as if the sunshine is something that must be waded through.”
A moon glints in a window “like a peeping Tom.” In a hospital cafeteria, everything tastes “faintly of hand sanitizer.”
And here is Julian, examining sperm under a microscope, “his very own universe composed entirely of comets” : “They seem so purposeful, so bright and full of promise, that for a moment he felt sad for each and every one of them, for their urgency, for the messages they would never get to deliver.”
Samson’s writing credits are among the more interesting of contemporary novelists. She has written two short story collections and another novel (Out of the Picture), and contributed lyrics to two Pink Floyd albums as well as two solo records from David Gilmour. (She is married to Gilmour, a guitarist for Pink Floyd.) Her life history also includes time spent as newspaper journalist, and a period of homelessness after the birth of her first child (she has four).
Such richness of experience comes through in her writing. At 53, hers is a mature voice, conversant in both love and loss, able to craft a carousel of deeply flawed yet sympathetic characters (well, sympathetic except for Julia’s first husband). 
Karl is Julian’s college friend, a would-be physician fiercely protective of his friend; Katie, Julian’s first girlfriend now a single mom who may still have designs on him; Jenna, Julian’s steely mother, who celebrates each birthday by swimming a mile in a river. (The sun wouldn’t dare not shine on her birthday, Julia drily notes).
There are few truly auxiliary characters in this lush landscape; all have a hand, however inadvertent, in what transpires in the family’s collapse. The Kindness is the literary exposition of the old adage “No good deed goes unpunished.” It explores how an act meant for good can cascade into a waterfall of pain. An ambiguous ending mildly disappoints but does not negate the pleasures of a finely crafted and memorable story. A — Jennifer Graham 

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