The Good People…
County Kerry, Ireland, 1825.
The fires on the hills smouldered orange as the women left, pockets charged with ashes to guard them from the night. Watching them fade into the grey fall of snow, Nance thought she could hear Maggie’s voice. A whisper in the dark.
“Some folk are born different, Nance. They are born on the outside of things, with a skin a little 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.”
Nóra Leahy has lost her daughter and her husband in the same year, and is now burdened with the care of her four-year-old grandson, Micheál. The boy cannot walk, or speak, and Nora, mistrustful of the tongues of gossips, has kept the child hidden from those who might see in his deformity evidence of otherworldly interference.
Unable to care for the child alone, Nóra hires a fourteen-year-old servant girl, Mary, who soon hears the whispers in the valley about the blasted creature causing grief to fall upon the widow’s house.
Alone, hedged in by rumour, Mary and her mistress seek out the only person in the valley who might be able to help Micheál. For although her neighbours are wary of her, it is said that old Nance Roche has the knowledge. That she consorts with Them, the Good People. And that only she can return those whom they have taken…
The Good People is one of those rare novels; the kind that allows you to breathe in the atmosphere of another era for the duration in which you are lost within its pages. This is Hannah Kent, it’s what she does with words, and it’s a skill that not all writers possess. She has a way of recreating history using all of a reader’s senses: you can feel the clinging cold, smell the poverty, taste the smoke in the air, hear the lone cry in the dead of night, and touch the rough homespun fabrics. You are there, almost two hundred years in the past, experiencing a life that beggars belief.
The Good People is set in rural Ireland during 1825 crossing into 1826. It is the story of Nora, newly widowed, and her young grandson, a boy stricken with illness and unable to thrive. Nora hires a young maid named Mary to care for him as she is still grieving for her departed daughter and husband and feels no familial connection to her grandson. Nance, a seer, fairy witch, traditional quack, I’m not sure what you would call her, declares the boy as a fairy, a changeling, and offers to heal him by expelling the fairy. What follows is a harrowing and at times horrific story of child abuse bred out of ignorance and superstition. And it is truly remarkable.
I have to say that I enjoyed The Good People far more than Burial Rites, Hannah’s first novel, but I am partial to Irish history and folklore. I was impressed with the way Hannah wove such an incredible amount of superstition into the everyday fabric of life for there was very little that was done by any of the inhabitants without some element of superstition attached. If they were not warding something off, then they were trying to bring something on. It would have been incredibly exhausting living there; so many curses and notions of bad luck and good luck to keep track of.
I found the opposing influences of church and superstition within the novel interesting to contemplate. It seemed to me that there was an expectation throughout rural Ireland for the old ways to be abandoned in favour of the church, an entity, one could argue, that harbours one of the greatest superstitious notions of all. The people were expected to turn to prayer and the church in favour of seeking out traditional medicine and more archaic practices of well being. Yet, when confronted with someone needing help, the church could not comply, as was the case for Nora when she sought help from her ‘fire and brimstone’ priest. You were kind of damned if you did and damned if you didn’t because poverty had your back always and pretty much dictated the road you would need to follow if anything ever went wrong: up to old Nance, who despite being feared and rumoured as ‘touched’ also had a proven track record at healing incidental illness and injury, not to mention a knack for tapping into cosmic coincidence. Yet ignorance ruled the day right the way through for The Good People. The inhabitants of the valley were so superstitious they were even superstitious of superstition! They couldn’t see the wood for the trees because they lived in a vacuum of poverty and despair on the fringes of an ancient world.
As fascinated by their lives as I was, I also felt overwhelmed by their ignorance. Needless suffering and deprivation; appalling impulsiveness. Not only was I horrified by Nora’s treatment of her own grandson, I was appalled at the priest’s bullying of Nance, who was essentially, just a little old lady. The way everyone treated each other, spitting and cursing all over the place, friend secretly foe. Heaven forbid if you had red hair or a birth mark! All of this was brought to life in a most convincing manner by Hannah Kent. She really is a master storyteller and we are so lucky she decided to share that talent with the world.
While I loved The Good People and highly recommend it, I caution readers to be aware that it contains disturbing themes, many of which involve a small child. It’s not for everyone and it’s quite heavy and dark. But it’s brilliant, and very hard to put down, I do promise you that!
The Good People is book 5 of my 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.