From the opening paragraph, The Good People by Australian writer Hannah Kent had me hooked. Men carrying the body of Nóra Leahy’s husband remind me of the opening of D H Lawrence’s short story, ‘The Odour of Chrysanthemums‘.
My interest, aroused by a traditional murder ballad at the front of the book, rose another notch. A dark novel set in a tiny impoverished village in the south-west of Ireland in 1825, The Good People kept me turning pages to the end. Obviously, someone would be murdered. Was this early death a murder? If not, who would be murdered? And how would they die? What would be the outcome?
The people who inhabit the novel live at the mercy of the elements. They eke out a miserable living from potatoes, eggs and the milk from their cows or goats, but even these staples are not always reliable. The cows dry up and the chickens fail to lay. Bleak, damp countryside surrounds rudimentary cabins. Soot gathers inside, over hearths where turf fires burn for warmth and cooking.
There is also hope, kept alive in subtle passages:
‘It was cold, but the sun was bright, and she felt that the waterlogged fields carried the promise of growth. Even in the gloom of dipped soil, where old snow lay patterned with the midnight flight of rabbits, early daffodils had emerged. She watched the robins, blood-smocked against the sky… ‘ (p. 234).
The new parish priest, Father Healy, tries unsuccessfully to stem the superstitious practices of the uneducated villagers. But the old ways are deeply ingrained. The villagers cannot afford a doctor when they are ill, for example, while at the same time they are also imbued with Catholic beliefs. Conflict results from these two belief-sets.
Nóra’s daughter has died before the story opens. With her husband now dead, she must care for her grandson, Micheál, alone. When she had seen the child previously, he had been lively. He walked and talked normally. Now four years old, he can no longer walk. He is thin, unresponsive. His legs dangle unused. Instead of talking, he moans, cries and screams incessantly.
His grandmother believes that the little boy in her care is a changeling, substituted by the Good People (Fairies). Longing for the return of her real grandson, she enlists the help of a sometimes homesick maid, Mary, to help with the boy. Nurtured in a large, caring family, Mary’s compassion towards the little boy belies her fourteen years.
Nance Roche, an unmarried crone, lives on the outskirts of the village. She inherited knowledge of fairy lore from her aunt, Maggie, who was ‘swept’ by the Fairies and later returned. Villagers call on Nance to deliver their babies and heal their ailments because they trust her. Sometimes, one suspects, her ‘cures’ may go too far. They are also suspicious of her because of her presumed association with the Fairies.
Desperate to be rid of the changeling, Nóra takes the boy to Nance, believing she has the power to banish the changeling and return her grandson.
Special strengths in The Good People
First, this is a fascinating story, based on a real event and skillfully plotted.
Hannah Kent uses words with great power. In The Good People, the lilt of language and turn of phrase seduce a reader like me, and not only because my Irish grandmother used similar language. For example,
‘He tremored like the crushed catkin of birch, like the fluttered seed of an ash tree, and within minutes the convulsions grew so violent that he seemed to be shivering out of his skin’ (p. 219).
Wide-ranging research undertaken by the author imbues the text with additional nuances and strength. For example, each of the twenty chapters has the name of a plant as its title. The reader benefits from reflecting on how the title gives special meaning to what follows.
Careful characterisation led me to care, and care deeply, about the characters as their lives and concerns unfolded. I wanted to know more about those I disliked, as well as those I liked. I wanted to intervene in their lives, to comfort them and protect them from what was happening.
I wonder if the title, The Good People, refers not only to the Fairies, but also to the many good humans who people this book, along with others who appear to have more than their share of failings.
For all its thoughtful complexity, this is an easy read. It would be a good book club choice for many groups.
- The Good People
- Hannah Kent
- ISBN: 9781743534908
- Pub Date: 27/09/2016
- Imprint: Picador Australia
- Price: $32.95
Hannah Kent will talk about her book on 24 February, 2017 during the Perth International Arts Writers Festival. Hope to see you there.
This is the first of my reviews for The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.