Hannah Kent’s unprecedented success with her debut novel Burial Rites left her pleasantly surprised and grateful for a readership for her next effort. The Good People reaches the same heights of its award-winning predecessor, and it’s no surprise there are similarities as Kent found the article and inspiration whilst researching her first.
Kent is once again drawn to harsh, unbearable landscapes in The Good People, but this novel stands alone in its singular ability to express the yearning and tragedy of human spirit. She gives voice to those whose story is yet to be told, and The Good People delves into the rich tapestry of life, tradition and superstition of rural Ireland in 1825.
Governed by primal elements of the Devil, God and the ‘Good People’, or fairies, the culture of the time meant any taboo issues, aberrant people and their illnesses were due to being ‘swept’ away by the fairies and replaced with a changeling. These very real superstitions had terrible consequences, with death or murder occurring for the sake of killing the changeling. Kent explores the empowering and entrapping psychology of folklore belief through the intertwined stories of vilified women who were left no other option.
Nora lives in a poor Irish village, her husband has just died only months after her only daughter, leaving grandson Michael in her care. Born healthy, the now crippled and unresponsive, the boy is beyond any doctor or priest’s help and soon rumours circulate that Michael is a changeling after misfortune spreads throughout the village. A desperate Nora calls on Nance Roache, a healer and mysterious handy woman in possession of ‘the knowledge’ of the Good People, who sees her curing of the boy as restoring and proving her ability. As the narrative focuses on the women’s quest, the heart is found in teenage Mary, a poor girl Nora hired to care for Michael, as she is moved by the child and resists the horror of the increasingly harmful methods to save the boy.
Kent’s years of meticulous research makes the novel incredibly atmospheric in the intermediary between the ordinary world and the world of the fairies, where traditions and desperation lead good people to blindly do terrible things.
Haunting and beautifully written, The Good People depicts a psychological drama within its unbearable setting and confining community where limited education and vulnerability ostracise any difference. Kent shows once again her ability to capture the rhythms of the natural world in the beauty and lyricism of Ireland’s west coast.
The Good People moves more slowly and delicately than Burial Rites, as it explores grief, fear and ignorance with tender soul. The story is a gripping and intelligent recreation of the past where the actions of the complex and intriguing characters are moulded with an empathetic and detailed eye as they clash with moral and spiritual dimensions.
Review by Hannah Lally
Rating out of 10: 9