Book Review: The Good People by Hannah Kent

On finer days I have been labouring in the garden. Weeding, digging post holes, planting seedlings. Last weekend I spent three hours digging a hole, which I refilled with compost in preparation for planting passionfruit vines in spring. I also moved the compost bin and its foundation 1.5 meters to the left because it was being crowded by the lime tree. I did not see any fairies, but I did end the day physically satisfied with my work, and covered in mud.

The world isn’t ours,’ he said once. ‘It belongs to itself, and that is why it is beautiful.

Whilst I toiled, I listened to The Good People by Hannah Kent, also author of Burial Rites. The Good People is a fairly grim tale set in a 19th century Irish village governed by folklore, superstition, curses and changelings. Where the mischief of the Good People (fairies) is treated with rituals and herbal remedies.

At the start of the novel, the husband of the main protagonist, Nora, drops dead for no apparent reason. She hides her disabled grandson out of shame when the villagers come to her dirt floored cabin for the mourning. The visitors include Nance, an old hag, who turns up to offer her keening services along with herbal remedies for all manner of ailments.

How hidden the heart, Nance thought. How frightened we are of being known, and yet how desperately we long for it.

The death is the first in a series of unexplained happenings, signs that something is not right, and the villagers start to look for explanations in peoples failure to follow correct rituals, or for doing something to upset the Good People. Nora’s disabled grandson Micheal, who cannot walk or talk, becomes the object of blame for the towns ailments. The townspeople come to believe Micheal must be a changeling, the real boy stolen by the Good People. Nora turns to Nance and her remedies for help to restore her grandson to himself.

Some folks are born different, Nance. They are born on the outside of things, with skin a little a thinner, eyes a little keener to what goes unnoticed by most. Their hearts swallow more blood than ordinary hearts; the river runs differently for them.

The new village priest wants to rid the ignorant peasants of their pagan beliefs and does not approve of Nance’s hocus pocus, and he starts to turn the town against her. The two women and Mary, the young maid who helps care for Micheal, form an uneasy outcasts alliance of sorts and set about finding a remedy for Micheal’s state, believing success will restore the communities faith in them. I listened with increasing horror as the poor boy was tortured, knowing that he had become a vehicle for a goal the three woman could not achieve.

Nora had always believed herself to be a good woman. A kind woman. But perhaps, she thought, we are good only when life makes it easy for us to be so. Maybe the heart hardens when good fortune is not there to soften it.

I remember hearing Kent interviewed about the The Good People some time ago. She said the novel was inspired from a story she read in an old British newspaper. In the paper she came across an article about a woman called Anne Roach who was accused of committing a serious crime. She called herself a female doctress, and said she could not be held responsible for the crime because she was only trying to cure someone who was fairy struck, to banish a changeling.

The language and prose in The Good People is evocative, conjuring long forgotten Irish hinterlands, mud, poverty and the credulous belief systems infusing the village and rendering the villagers helpless to their own misfortunes. It’s gothic writing at its best, bringing to light the terrifying reality of being different, or being a woman undefined by a man in the early 1800’s, and of how grief and otherness can undo us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s