In brief: In Ireland in 1825, Nóra has experienced a great deal of loss. Now she looks after her ill grandson with the help of servant Mary, but there is gossip. Can healer Nance, known to be able to talk with the Good People, bring back the real Micheál?
The good: Hannah Kent always writes beautifully.
The not-so-good: The writing means I want to devour every word, which means I read more slowly!
Why I chose it: Shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction.
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Rating: 9 out of 10
I know that a new Hannah Kent novel will always bring me a new topic to become completely engrossed in. She takes subjects I barely know (in this case, The Good People, or the fairy people of Ireland) and brings them to life, making for a fascinating read. Her characters are always fleshed out, yet slightly mysterious and the settings, beautiful but haunting. I must say that I enjoyed The Good People even more than Burial Rites, maybe because I have some Irish history or simply because I read most of this book on a grey, eerie day which suited the tone of the story.
The story opens as Nóra realises that her husband is dead. It was never meant to be this way; Martin was strong and healthy but dropped dead near a suspicious site. With his death, Nóra’s world is destroyed. First, the loss of Martin and now the knowledge that she will need to bring up her grandson Micheál alone. She has managed to keep him hidden until now, but rumours are starting to grow that something is wrong with him. Doctors nor her son in law know what is the matter with Micheál. He used to be happy and healthy but now cannot walk or talk, only cry and howl. Nóra is urged to hire a servant girl to help with Micheál, and Mary arrives, not knowing the full story. Gossip in the well grows and after it is mentioned that Nóra’s daughter cried that Micheál was not her son on her death bed, suspicion is raised that the Good People may be at work. Have they taken Micheál and replaced him with a changeling? Nóra only knows one person who can help after doctors and priests have failed – Nance Roche. Nance is the local healer, but it’s said that she knows the Good People and may be able to bring the real Micheál back. This sets off a chain of events that none of the three women could foresee…
The exploration of the need to fit in, to be seen as normal is strong in The Good People. Nóra can’t stand the shame of Micheál not being right – one of her first actions after Martin’s death was to order Micheál to be taken away so mourners wouldn’t see him. The increasing gossip sends Nóra further and further into a tailspin where she is trying to hurt Micheál (but with the best of misguided intentions). Her sense of being ‘other’ is in contrast to Mary, who feels out of step in Nóra’s house. It’s odd, strange and it’s not home for her. Mary wants to be at home, but knows she can’t, so accepts that she will be an outsider for the time being. Everyone else seems to think that Nance is at one with being an outsider, but her thoughts reveal she is not. She appears lonely at times, lost in the past. She’s increasingly at odds with the new priest and his insistence that religion must be the number one go-to, rather than the old ways Nance knows. Nance isn’t ready to let those ways goes without a fight for fear of loss of her identity – perhaps that’s why things end up the way they do.
Hannah Kent’s writing is just lovely, no matter what she’s writing about. It may be gasp-inducing cruelty or the depth of grief but it’s all handled with a skilful, tender touch. The characters are also crafted beautifully – I was never once at a loss as to why they did something as their motives were clear to me. I felt I knew them really well. Her writing also captures the mood of the setting. I feel that every time I opened this book, the clouds would appear, the fields turned green and I was in the damp depths of Ireland with a sense of unease. These all combined with a plot that moved well to produce a stellar novel. Well done. I’m looking forward to seeing which topic Hannah Kent chooses for her next book.