Book Review: The Good People by Hannah Kent
Hannah Kent’s second novel, The Good People takes elements of a true story, from 19th century Ireland, and fashions them into a compelling tale of fear, suspicion and the pull of the ‘old ways’.
My local bookshop, Fullers in Hobart, hosted an event where Kent talked about her research for The Good People. This piqued my interest, but I decided to start with her first work, Burial Rites. A fascinating tale, well-told, yet I felt she started the story in the wrong place, was confused by the head-hopping and overwhelmed by her relentless descriptions of the cold.
In her second novel, her storytelling is more focused but the weather is still front-and-centre.
Nora Leahy’s husband dies suddenly, leaving her to care for her four-year-old grandson. The boy, Micheál, is suffering from the same mystery illness that took their daughter. Her world is a small holding in a frigid valley in Killarney, in the southwest of Ireland. Nora hires young Mary Clifford to help with the boy; meanwhile, the neighbours whisper that the child is a changeling. In her grief and despair, Nora grabs hold of the hope that the Good People stole Micheál and left this wailing, withered thing in his place. She turns to Nance Roach, the local ‘handy-woman’, said to be on speaking terms with the Good People. But Nance’s ‘cure’ must be done in secret. The people of this valley hover between the old ways, as represented by Nance, and Christianity as represented by the new parish priest.
The Good People are fairies, but not the ones of with pretty wings and wands. According to local lore, they are capricious and dangerous if crossed. Despite its dogma, Irish Catholicism, can’t explain everything and when faced with a vacuum, people fall back on the old ways, much of which are unspeakably cruel.
Kent jumps straight in with the sudden death of Nora’s husband. Nance is introduced at the wake and a not long after, Mary enters the story. The point of view shifts between these three characters, which anchors the narrative.
Much of the skilfully-wrought description concerns the weather – particularly how bleak and cold it is. I couldn’t help feeling that Kent described the cold from a 21st-century point of view. After generations, there must have been some acclimatisation, surely?
The Good People changed my perception about ‘the old ways.’ I’ve always had the idea that Christianity in Ireland destroyed the culture. Yet, the culture kept people in the state of fear which leads to the terrible, true event at the heart of the story. As mentioned above, the fairies didn’t have pretty wings and wands.
After reading The Good People, I gave thanks that my illiterate great-grandparents gathered up their two tiny children, and their few possessions, and took assisted passage from Donegal to Queensland in 1879. And, I would like to return to Ireland to find out more.
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